Was Vincent Van Gogh Murdered?


A lone figure tramps toward a field of golden wheat. He carries a canvas, an easel, a bag of paints, and a pained grimace. He sets up his kit and begins to paint furiously, rushing to capture the scene of the swirling wheat as a storm approaches. Murderous crows attack him. He flails them away. As the wind whips the wheat into a frenzy, he races to add the ominous clouds to his canvas. Then the threatening crows. When he looks up, his eyes bug out with madness. He goes to a tree and scribbles a note: “I am desperate. I see no way out.” Gritting his teeth in torment, he reaches into his pocket. Cut to a long shot of the wheat field churning in the storm. The sudden report of a gun startles a passing cart driver. The music swells. “The End” appears against a mosaic of famous paintings and a climactic crash of cymbals.

It’s a great scene, the stuff of legend: the death of the world’s most beloved artist, the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh. Lust for Life was conceived in 1934 by the popular pseudo-biographer Irving Stone and captured on film in 1956 by the Oscar-winning director Vincente Minnelli, with the charismatic Kirk Douglas in the principal role.

There’s only one problem. It’s all bunk. Though eagerly embraced by a public in love with a handful of memorable images and spellbound by the thought of an artist who would cut off his own ear, Stone’s suicide yarn was based on bad history, bad psychology, and, as a definitive new expert analysis makes clear, bad forensics.

In 2001, when we visited the Van Gogh Foundation archives, in Amsterdam, for the first time, we had no inkling of the surprise that lay at the end of our 10-year effort to write the definitive biography of Vincent van Gogh. The only bias we brought with us that day was “Please, God, let him be straight!”

Our 1998 biography of Jackson Pollock had drawn a lot of flak for its conclusion that the legendarily macho painter had homosexual yearnings (on which he occasionally acted). The evidence was overwhelmingly convincing; how could we not address it? Nevertheless, some critics denounced “the accusation” as an outrageous slur. They even argued that we had brought out the pink in Pollock because we were gay, on some sort of posthumous recruitment drive. Preposterous as this was, we didn’t want to go through the gauntlet again. (Spoiler alert: Vincent was most definitively straight.) ...

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