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Death of Vincent van Gogh: New Contributions on the Tragic Event

By Javier Luque

The recent studies on the Dutch painter’s tragic death occurred in Auvers by gunshot reveal an intriguing labyrinth of inconsistencies about the site of the tragic event, the suicidal intention, the procurement and subsequent disappearance of the gun and the medical care provided to him. Different hypotheses are currently considered, from murder or manslaughter to accident or suicide.

The local weekly periodical (L'Écho Pontoisien) grossly placed the site of the shot "in the field", which aided to spread the false rumor that Vincent was mortally wounded in the cornfields near the cemetery. Controversy exists whether shooting occurred near the castle or in a corral located in Boucher Street in the Chaponval neighborhood. But, if this would be the case, the wounded artist would have walked by the central streets of the village and would not have gone unnoticed to the neighbors. According Adeline Ravoux (the innkeeper's daughter of Vincent), her father told her that the artist shot himself in the road near the outer wall of the castle (place painted by Gachet's son on a canvas), came badly injured down the hill and finally arrived to the inn (where he died about 28 hours after).

René Secrétan, the youngest of two brothers who knew Vincent, said the painter took a gun from them belonging to the innkeeper. Naifeh and Smith proposed that van Gogh was shot by René in an accident or deliberate act when he was joking or playing with the gun of Ravoux like a cowboy. This statement contradicts the declaration of attempted suicide made by Vincent himself. The local chronicles and the historians of Auvers do not support the existence of rumors of a murder in the village. Professor Rewald, after a visit to Auvers in early 1930's, dismissed it. In addition, this hypothesis could not be sustained because the Secrétan brothers left Auvers in mid-July to continue their holiday in Granville (Normandy Coast). On the other hand, the examination of Vincent’s bullet wound on the left side -consistent with a shot at close range-, the testimonial stories and self-injurious behavior previous support the suicidal act.

Adeline exonerated her father, hold ultimately responsible for the Vincent’s death by the police, arguing that the alleged gun of the innkeeper never appeared. But the painter could have taken the gun of Ravoux from the Secrétan brothers when they left it with the fishing gear in their boat before going to Granville (as René declared to Doiteau).

The afternoon of July 27, Vincent left the inn without the paint supplies (placed beside the coffin the day of the funeral service), and could go through Chaponval to some river dock and come back along Boucher Street with the revolver hidden in his jacket to the high fields near the castle (where he would have been painting in the morning). Later, he could shoot himself on the road next to the wall and finally go down the hill to the inn (as Ravoux declared). This hypothesis would explain the time elapsed that evening in question, which would be due to the displacement of the painter, and the fact that someone had seen the painter walking to Chaponval or in Boucher Street before shooting. Even it would explain that someone heard the detonation in a henhouse of the narrow street by the echo of the shot coming from the top of the hill.

The Dutch painter, stunned, lost his revolver after the impact. The gun was never found, but a neighbor or farmer could have pick it up and thrown it into the river or a landfill or have buried it to avoid any incrimination. Furthermore, we cannot discard that someone close to Ravoux did it to quell the rumors considering the innkeeper an irresponsible person, something detrimental for the familiar business. At mid-19th century, a farmer plowing the lands near the Château of Auvers found buried a "Lefaucheux" with the corrosion rate corresponding to the period of the event. But researchers have not been able to confirm or discard if that was the gun used by the artist.

Vincent, meanwhile, refused to answer any questions to the police about the origin of the gun, which avoided to inculpate Ravoux for providing the gun to a mentally unbalanced subject or to implicate the young men expending their holidays in Auvers. But these rogues could have stolen the gun from Ravuox when they went to the coffee house, because they knew where to find it, and did not return it when they came back to Granville. So because the gun was not in the drawer where Ravoux kept it and because he ignored the fact that it was used by the Secrétan brothers, we can understand that the police suspected that the innkeeper had given the gun to the painter or that Vincent had taken it from the inn. Adeline did not ratify one or another conjecture, and she was upset with the police investigation and with the lies about what her father had said. So, the histories of Ravoux leaving his revolver to the artist to fright the crows or of Vincent threatening Gachet with a gun are now part of the legend.

The shot might deviate due to the ribcage or the lack of expertise of the painter with the old innkeeper's revolver. But the difficulties to assess the degree of lethal intent or the delayed death do not exclude a suicidal act. However, the disappearance of the gun, the absence of a suicide note and the imprecision of the shot would justify the forensic examination of the painter's remains.

Today, Van Gogh could have been saved in a modern hospital by replenishing his blood volume and extracting the bullet. Unfortunately Gachet, qualified in phrenology, showed more interest in the artist's work than in his patient’s care. By the other hand, Vincent, with his physical and mental problems, did not want to become a burden to his brother, who was going through financial difficulties as art dealer. The Dutch painter really wanted to die and pay off Theo’s debts with his own works.


Javier G. Luque (Salamanca, Spain)

Brief notes on the author's work entitled: “Muerte de Vincent van Gogh. Últimas cartas, últimas telas y arma de fuego”. [“Death of Vincent van Gogh: last letters, last canvases and a gun”]. Portales Médicos. Vol. VIII. Nº 1. Enero 2013. Available in

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