The shot that took the life of Vincent van Gogh at the age of just 37

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'Self-Portrait', 1887, Vincent van Gogh | Via Wikipedia

July 27, On This Day 

‘Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe’, 1889, Vincent van Gogh | Via Wikipedia

One of the single biggest and beloved names in art history today, who is believed to have laid the very foundations of modern art, is Vincent van Gogh. From immersive experiences of his mesmerising impressionist work catching on in just the last few years at global venues, to his most iconic painted renditions like The Starry Night, Sunflowers, and his myriad self-portraits still enthralling legions — van Gogh is an artist who continues to inspire generations beyond his time.

The same time was seemingly cruel to van Gogh. It is of tragic note that his success came mainly posthumously. In life, the talented artist dealt with speculated severe mental illness as also poverty.

One of the most severe manifestations was in the incident where he chopped off his own year. It is believed that after an altercation on the evening of December 23, 1888, van Gogh in his room seemingly heard voices and either wholly or in part severed his left ear with a razor causing severe bleeding. He bandaged the wound, wrapped the ear in paper and delivered the package to a woman at a brothel. He was found unconscious the next morning by a policeman and taken to hospital.

Van Gogh was lost to the world too young, at the age of just 37, when he died by suicide. History has chronicled that on July 27, 1890, van Gogh reportedly shot himself, and was declared dead on July 29, two days later.

The death is chronicled to have occurred early in the morning, in his room at the Auberge Ravoux in the village of Auvers-sur-Oise, a commune north of Paris popular with artists. 

A year prior, in 1889, van Gogh is said to have experienced a deterioration in his mental health, and eventually entered an asylum — going on to produce one of his most acclaimed paintings, The Starry Night. While his condition improved for a short while, he suffered from a relapse — the last painting he produced at the asylum was At Eternity’s Gate, an image of desolation and despair. Later, he moved to Auvers-sur-Oise. 

‘The Starry Night’, June 1889, Vincent van Gogh | Via Wikipedia

An unsent letter to artist Paul Gauguin, which van Gogh wrote around June 17, 1890, is quite positive about his plans for the future. On July 2, writing to his beloved brother Theo, van Gogh commented: “I still love art and life very much…” And yet, on July 10, he wrote to his sibling in a despairing tone: “And the prospect grows darker, I see no happy future at all.”

These ups and downs continued over the next few weeks, captured in the epistles he penned.

An account by the daughter of the innkeeper of the place where van Gogh stayed speaks of the events preceding his death. She has written that he left on July 27 after breakfast and returned only by 9pm, clutching his stomach. He eventually revealed the wound near his heart and spoke of his attempted suicide.

Van Gogh’s friend and physician, Dr Paul-Ferdinand Gachet, who administered to him at this time, was allegedly told: “My body is mine and I am free to do what I want with it. Do not accuse anybody, it is I that wished to commit suicide.”

Theo was sent for but could only watch helplessly as van Gogh succumbed around 1.30am on July 29. His dying brother said to him, “La tristesse durera toujours.” (The sadness will last forever).

At his poignant funeral, van Gogh’s body was set out in “the painter’s room”, surrounded by his last canvases and masses of yellow flowers including dahlias and sunflowers, while his easel, folding stool and brushes stood before the coffin. Among those who arrived in the room were artists Lucien Pissarro and Auguste Lauzet. He was buried in the sunshine-swept fields nearby.

‘Bank of the Oise at Auvers’, July 1890, Vincent van Gogh | Via Wikipedia
(Van Gogh was particularly productive during his last few weeks in Auvers, completing over 70 paintings as well as a number of drawings and sketches. They cover landscapes, portraits and still lifes. Some of them appear to reflect his increasing loneliness while many others, with their bright colours, convey a more positive attitude.)

In 2011, authors Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith published a biography, Van Gogh: The Life, in which they challenged the conventional account of the artist’s death. They argue it was unlikely that he killed himself as:

– His paintings created immediately preceding his death had an upbeat disposition

– In private correspondence, van Gogh described suicide as sinful and immoral

– He could hardly have travelled the mile-long distance between the wheat field and inn after sustaining the fatal stomach wound

– He obtained a gun despite his well-known mental health problems

– His painting gear was never found by the police

They believed he was a possible victim of accidental manslaughter or foul play by some local boys, who may have been drinking at this time. The authors postulated that after being wounded, van Gogh welcomed death and believed the boys had done him a favour.

In 2014, handgun expert Vincent Di Maio reviewed forensic evidence surrounding the shooting and noted that to shoot himself in the left abdomen, van Gogh would have had to have held the gun at a very awkward angle, and there would have been black powder burns on his hands and tattooing and other marks on the skin around the wound, none of which is noted in the contemporary report.

To this day, both versions of van Gogh’s passing have ardent believers.

‘The Church at Auvers’, 1890, Vincent van Gogh | Via Wikipedia
(Van Gogh was particularly productive during his last few weeks in Auvers, completing over 70 paintings as well as a number of drawings and sketches. They cover landscapes, portraits and still lifes. Some of them appear to reflect his increasing loneliness while many others, with their bright colours, convey a more positive attitude.)