Few painters are as famous and recognizable as Vincent van Gogh, but he’s not just known for his beautiful art. His tragic life story has also drawn the attention of the world, so it’s no wonder that people speculate over the circumstances of his death. That includes studying the painting he was working on just days before he died, and one art historian thinks it may have led him to a fascinating new insight.
It was July 29, 1890, when Vincent van Gogh succumbed to a gunshot injury he had received two days earlier. He was only 37 years old. Art historians have been trying to reconstruct his last movements ever since, but the full story has proved elusive. What we do know for sure is he went out to paint with a canvas in hand on July 27, and he came back with a mortal wound to his stomach.
At the time van Gogh was living near Paris in the town of Auvers-sur-Oise and still working hard on his paintings. Once it was thought that his last work was a piece called Wheatfield with Crows, but there’s another theory that it was actually one known as Tree Roots. Tree Roots was unfinished at the time of van Gogh’s death.
Van Gogh had been living at the Auberge Ravoux inn for 70 days before he died. His behavior showed no sign of being unusual in the lead-up to the shooting. However, he did have a history of mental health problems. How do we know about this time in van Gogh’s life? Andries Bonger, brother-in-law to van Gogh’s brother, was the source.
Bonger wrote about van Gogh’s final work, including how he was painting a piece “full of sun and life.” This has fueled the argument over whether this describes Wheatfield or Tree Roots, which in turn raises questions over van Gogh’s last movements. The answer may shed light on the mystery of van Gogh’s end. Did he pull the trigger himself, or did someone else kill him?
The suicide theory of van Gogh’s death has plenty of evidence to support it. Among others, the official Van Gogh Museum accepts it. It would mark the culmination of a life dogged by depression and loneliness. So any discussion of van Gogh is likely to focus as much on his tragedy as his brilliance as the artist has become something of a myth.
Vincent Willem van Gogh’s story began in the Netherlands in 1853 as the eldest of six children. His father was a pastor, and van Gogh would spend some time studying theology himself. This didn’t end well for him when the church decided his decision to give all his worldly possessions to the poor was too literal an interpretation of Christianity.
Being dismissed by the church had a profound effect on van Gogh, who thought he’d been treated like a “madman” just for trying to enact his faith. He turned to drawing to restore his self-belief and tried to comfort the unfortunate by creating art. Before too long, in the 1880s he started studying and improving his technique through his early paintings.
His new choice of career didn’t thrill his parents, though, and he fell out with them. However, his brother Theo believed in him, offering financial support so that he could concentrate on his art. It was lucky he did as commercial success eluded van Gogh during his life. That’s incredible when you consider that his paintings are sold for millions of dollars apiece in the modern world.
Van Gogh’s life as an artist was a struggle for more than just financial reasons. A romantic relationship ended up in tears, and after that he tried moving to the countryside. That didn’t work out, though, with the coldness and isolation proving too much for him. So he moved back in with his parents. Again they found it hard to cope with his unconventional behavior, however, so he set out on his own again.
In 1888 van Gogh’s mental health really began to deteriorate, leading to the famous incident when he cut off his own ear. At the time he was living with another artist called Paul Gauguin, but their two very different personalities brought them into conflict. Gauguin responded to van Gogh’s displays of anger by threatening to leave, and van Gogh reacted by brandishing a razor.
Later in the same evening, van Gogh used the razor to remove part of his own ear, which he then delivered to a local prostitute. The very next day he was admitted to hospital, but was released again just weeks later with little memory of his actions. After that, he continued to paint. A few months later, though, he was back in the asylum voluntarily because he feared a relapse.
Experts have long debated the cause of van Gogh’s psychiatric problems. Popular theories include bipolar disorder, frontal lobe epilepsy, lead poisoning, thujone poisoning, sunstroke, and hypergraphia. He did have seizures, and his mood could veer dramatically between mania and depression. He also had an unusual fondness for the color yellow, which may have been caused by medication or too much absinthe.
Van Gogh was a patient in the asylum for a year, during which he painted 150 new works. He managed this even though the asylum had to restrict his access to materials for a while after he had tried to consume some oil paint. He traveled to Avers-sur-Oise when he left the hospital and appeared to be relatively healthy, but he still worried about recurring attacks as well as his lack of financial security.
In one of his last letters to Theo, Vincent explained how in his latest paintings, “I made a point of trying to express sadness, extreme loneliness.” It was clear motive for suicide, and it’s even claimed that he admitted, “I shot myself… I only hope I haven’t botched it” from his deathbed. After his passing, Theo was devastated to have lost Vincent and died himself just six months later.
Suicide may be the most popular theory about van Gogh’s death, but it’s not the only explanation. In 2011 two biographers called Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith made a bold claim that van Gogh had actually been in a fight with two young boys while he was drunk. The biography suggested that it had been these boys who had accidentally killed van Gogh.
The biography was thoroughly researched and critically well received, but experts such as those at the Van Gogh Museum are still skeptical. They point to van Gogh’s psychiatric history and time at the asylum, during which there is evidence he had considered suicide. A better understanding of van Gogh’s final movements may help support or disprove one of these theories.
One way to trace van Gogh’s last movements is to work out which painting was his last work and where and when he was painting it. This may throw more light on both how he was spending his time and his mental state. To that end, the newest piece of research by one art historian may help fill in some gaps.
There are strong arguments for both the main candidates for van Gogh’s last painting. The case for Wheatfield with Crows was boosted by its 1956 appearance in the film Lust for Life, which showed van Gogh (played by Kirk Douglas) working on the piece as his madness intensified until he committed suicide.
The film may have created an enduring impression, but the painting itself also captures the imagination. It’s dramatic and intense, with a haunting atmosphere that lends itself well to the idea that its artist was experiencing extreme emotions. There’s an ominous note to the crows hovering over the wheatfield of the title, while an abruptly ending path seems appropriate for a soon-to-end life.
Wheatfield with Crows was painted in July of 1890, which was just before van Gogh’s death. The other candidate, however, was also being painted at a similar time and it remained unfinished when van Gogh died. Tree Roots may have a title that explains itself, but the painting itself isn’t as straightforward.
Tree Roots has an almost abstract design, with its bold colors at first appearing to be more a flight of fancy than a depiction of anything real. Closer inspection, however, will make it clear that this is indeed a collection of branches and roots belonging to a tree or trees that grow on the slope of a quarry.
If we consider Bonger’s claim that van Gogh was working on a piece full of “sun and life” on the day of his death, then Tree Roots seems a more likely option to have been his final painting than Wheatfield and its ominous crows. The main problem with stating that it was for sure is that van Gogh himself didn’t record the dates that he painted or completed work.
The newest research on the subject comes from Wouter van der Veen, who is the scientific director of the Van Gogh Institute. The institute is a non-profit that is dedicated to preserving the little room in the inn in Auvers-sur-Oise where van Gogh spent his last days. Now van der Veen thinks he has found the actual location where van Gogh painted Tree Roots.
Van der Veen’s research began with a set of historical postcards belonging to an elderly Frenchwoman called Janine Demuriez. Demuriez is 94, and some of her postcards are even older. In fact, they include images of the area around Auvers-sur-Oise in 1904, which wasn’t too long after van Gogh was living there.
One postcard in particular caught van der Veen’s attention when he opened an image of it on his computer screen. It showed an image of the Rue Daubigny, which is the main road through Auvers-sur-Oise. A cyclist was traveling past a familiar embankment that had tree roots emerging from its steep sides. It had been, he said, “hidden in plain sight” for all these years.
As van der Veen was living in Strasbourg at the time, he couldn’t just rush to the road and see for himself, so he called in a colleague to do it for him. Dominique-Charles Janssens owns the Van Gogh Institute and also happens to live in Auvers-sur-Oise. Once van der Veen had compared images of the postcard and the painting, he asked Janssens to check out the real spot.
Not every tree was still standing, and ivy had grown over the rest, but Janssen was fairly sure he’d found the site that inspired Tree Roots, and close to 50% of it was still there. It’s set along the same road that van Gogh would have walked when visiting the fields of Wheatfield with Crows, or when he traveled to the setting of his painting “The Church at Auvers.”
Van der Veen eventually visited for himself, and closer inspection of the roots allowed him to draw some more conclusions about van Gogh’s work on the painting. In turn, that inspection may reveal more about van Gogh’s last days. In particular, the interaction between the roots and the light in the piece suggests that it was painted late in the afternoon.
It seems unlikely that van Gogh didn’t start painting until 5:00 or 6:00 p.m., so van der Veen thinks Tree Roots was an all-day piece of work. If he had been painting all day, then there would have been very little time to have an argument with the boys who Naifeh and Smith claim killed him. Van der Veen thinks this supports Tree Roots being the last painting and van Gogh committing suicide.
Naifeh disagrees with van der Veen’s conclusion and claims that it’d be impossible to calculate the time of day from the light in the painting. Specifically, he says it’s “not a photograph,” and therefore it’s possible that van Gogh was just using artistic license in his work. It wouldn’t be the first time van Gogh was abstract and creative in his depictions.
The argument from Naifeh is that the discovery of the real-life tree roots actually supports the theory that van Gogh was murdered. If van Gogh was painting for hours, then it suggests it was a “productive normal day,” and therefore it is unlikely that van Gogh was experiencing one of his depressions. This in turn makes it less likely that he committed suicide.
Van der Veen does admit that the discovery is confirmation that van Gogh’s “behavior was perfectly normal in the last days.” That supports the testimony of witnesses at the time that there was “no sign he was having a crisis,” but van der Veen says that this doesn’t mean he didn’t kill himself.
It also seems that Tree Roots may fit just as well as a final painting as Wheatfield, at least in terms of atmosphere and the mood of the artist. When van Gogh had sketched tree roots in the past he had told his brother it could “express something of life’s struggle.”
Van Gogh went on to talk about how the tree was “Frantically and fervently rooting itself, as it were, in the earth, and yet being half torn up by the storm.” Van der Veen has since said that this suggested it could be seen as a representation of “the struggle of life, and a struggle with death.” Now that sounds like a theme for an artist battling his mental demons.
The sketch van Gogh was describing as representing struggle was done in 1882, when van Gogh was living in the Netherlands. Van der Veen still thinks it has relevance to the final Tree Roots and how it could serve as a “farewell note in colors” to the themes that recurred through both van Gogh’s life and his art.
This doesn’t answer every question about van Gogh’s life and death, but it does shed a little more light on his last days. The tree roots have even been acknowledged by authorities including the Van Gogh Museum, which means they are now part of van Gogh scholarship. Some of the ivy has been cleared away so that they can more easily be seen.
A special ceremony was held at the site to officially recognize the tree roots and what they meant to van Gogh. Emilie Gordenker from the Van Gogh Museum was joined by Theo van Gogh’s great-grandson, Willem, in front of a wooden structure that was erected to protect the roots themselves.
The site has definitely caught the imagination of van Gogh experts. Indeed, another researcher from the museum, Teio Meenendorp, described how its status as the inspiration for van Gogh’s last painting made it “all the more exceptional, and even dramatic.” It’s certainly a way to encourage more speculation about how van Gogh lived and died.
The wooden screen was erected by the Institut van Gogh with the help of local authorities to ensure the roots remains safe in the face of any increase in visitors. Now it will be possible for the lovers of van Gogh who travel to Auvers-sur-Oise to see where he spent his last days to also visit the site of his last painting.