The Death of Vincent van Gogh

In the summer of 1890, Vincent van Gogh stayed at the Auberge Ravoux in Auvers–sur–Oise, in the northwestern suburbs of Paris. He was in the habit of walking into the local wheat fields to paint. The commonly accepted version of his death is that on the 27th of July, he shot himself while painting in the wheat fields, before returning to the Auberge where he died some 30 hours later (in the early hours of the 29th). He is widely quoted to have said on his deathbed, "Do not accuse anyone; it was I who wanted to kill myself." He was buried in Auvers.

There are certain inconsistencies in this story however. Van Gogh had previously described suicide as "sinful" and "immoral", and at least some of his last paintings are seen as being bright and optimistic. His painting materials were never found. The shot entered his chest at an upward–pointing angle – strange for a self–inflicted wound. If he'd fired the fatal shot himself, surely he would have targeted his head or his heart? And when the first shot failed to end his life, why did he stagger (or crawl) back to the auberge, rather than firing another?

A biography published in 2011 (Van Gogh: the Life, by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith) claimed that there had been rumours in Auvers, dating back at least to the 1930s, to the effect that van Gogh had been shot accidentally by one of two teenage boys, and had taken the blame to protect them.

The boys in question were 16–year–old Rene Secretan and his elder brother Gaston. Their father was a wealthy pharmacist, and the family was spending the summer at a villa nearby. Rene and Gaston became well known to van Gogh that summer, and they would buy him drinks. Rene was fixated on the American Wild West; he liked to wear a cowboy costume, brought from Paris, and carried a real gun – an erratic old .380 calibre pistol, with which he would shoot squirrels, birds and fish. According to the 2011 biography, van Gogh liked and respected Gaston, but felt differently about Rene, who would bait him mercilessly.

Rene Secretan went on to become a rich and respected banker. Shortly before his death in 1957, aged 83, he admitted tormenting van Gogh in the summer of 1890, describing him as "like a tramp". But he denied shooting him.

The biographers stuck to their version of events. According to Gregory White Smith, although van Gogh did not actively seek death, "when it came to him, or when it presented itself as a possibility, he embraced it ... as an act of love to his brother [Theo], to whom he was a burden".

The story was widely covered at the time (on the BBC website and by the New York Post, among others), but was generally treated with some scepticism. Seven years on, Wikipedia, on its Vincent van Gogh page, treats the suicide story as fact and doesn't even mention the Secretan brothers; but on a page entitled Death of Vincent van Gogh it covers the 'accidental homicide' version in some detail.

Theo van Gogh, whose unfailing financial and emotional support had allowed Vincent to devote himself entirely to painting, died just six months after his older brother, aged 33, after suffering from a form of dementia. In 1914 his body was exhumed and reburied alongside Vincent at Auvers–sur–Oise.

© Haydn Thompson 2018