The two writers whose notion of Vincent van Gogh’s “murder” helped promote their new biography of him (Naifeh and Smith 2011) have dug in their heels despite much intelligent criticism, notably from scholars at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam (Tilborgh and Meedendorp 2013). Now the biographers are back, supposedly vindicated by a forensic expert, pathologist Vincent DiMaio (Naifeh and Smith 2014).
Don’t you believe it. Vincent DiMaio is indeed a distinguished expert, but he was drawn into a controversy in which he apparently lacked essential information. DiMaio rightly dismisses the importance of the bullet wound’s “purple halo” as simply evidence of subcutaneous bleeding “usually seen in individuals who live awhile” (van Gogh lingered for some thirty hours); also an accompanying “brownish ring” was due to abrasion that is “seen around virtually all entrance wounds.” So far so good. But then he speculates as to how the gun might have been held in order to account for van Gogh’s left-of-center abdominal wound, the bullet entering with a downward trajectory.
DiMaio suggests the body of the pistol was gripped by either the left or right hand—van Gogh was right-handed—with a thumb being used to depress the trigger. He finds that in either scenario (a false dichotomy) “one would have ‘powder burns’ on the palm of the hand grasping the body of the gun.” He draws his conclusion from the apparent absence of powder burns on the palm, as well as their absence around the wound, indicating the muzzle was at a distance of “more than a foot or two away.” But I had already offered a scenario in which the artist may have held the revolver “by the barrel in his left hand (with his palm on the underside rather than over the barrel) and, with his arms extended, pushed up and away on the trigger with his right thumb” (Nickell 2012, 15).
This is not, obviously, the method of a determined suicide, but the equivocal, hesitant manner of one uncertain of his own intent and fearing the resulting pain. (More on his uncertainties presently.) Van Gogh’s clothing would have absorbed most of the gunpowder residue, which was then likely obscured by blood (Spitz 1993, 311). And who says there were no powder traces on van Gogh’s left hand? Who would have examined him for these in any case? Not his homeopathic doctor who had no experience in such matters. Besides, any gunpowder evidence would have been largely rubbed off and/or covered over when, having fainted and been revived in the cool night air, van Gogh crawled about on hands and knees looking for the gun with which to finish himself off (as the innkeeper’s daughter recalled). Might he even have been cleaned up somewhat while the doctor returned from a fishing trip?
I suspect that for DiMaio to have concluded that, “in all medical probability,” the wound was not self-inflicted, he must have been influenced by Naifeh and Smith’s having seized upon the merest rumor about a teenager named René Secrétan and his brother and friends who, known to play pranks on van Gogh, may somehow have shot him. But if intentional, why? And why not finish him off? And if accidental, why not render help? Actually the notion is countered by evidence that the Secrétans had left Auvers for their family villa in Normandy earlier that month. And if they did not shoot van Gogh, who could we imagine did?
DiMaio says nothing (in the comments quoted by Naifeh and Smith) about van Gogh’s actually admitting he had shot himself. Asked by police if he had wanted to commit suicide, he replied, “Yes, I believe so,” reflecting his own uncertainty as to whether he simply meant to injure himself yet again. (He had once cut off the lower half of his right ear with a straight razor, and he sometimes engaged in self-flagellation, among other abuses.) When they pressed him, he urged, “Do not accuse anyone; it is I who wanted to kill myself.” He told his brother, and others who came to see him while he lingered, that he had indeed shot himself. Naifeh and Smith, in the manner of conspiracy theorists, cleverly try to make van Gogh complicit in the matter: he takes the blame. Why? “The answer we believe,” say the writers (2011, 851–861, 869–879), “Is that Vincent welcomed death.”
Vincent welcomed death, indeed! Astonishingly, there is no mention of DiMaio even considering the issue of van Gogh’s mental state, whereas a psychological autopsy is standard procedure in any case in which suicide is suspected or possible (Geberth 1993, 270; Nickell and Fischer 1999, 255, 264, 268; Weisman and Kastenbaum 1968). Overwhelming evidence demonstrates that Vincent van Gogh was a suicide waiting to happen. In addition to the self-abuse already mentioned, he wrote frequently of his “emptiness,” “deep melancholy,” and “unutterable misery”—often mentioning but usually rejecting suicide, at times finding the “loathing of life” so overwhelming that he would gladly have embraced death. His breakdowns and year’s self-commitment to the asylum at Saint-Rémy underscore his mental precariousness (Naifeh and Smith 2011, 852–853). On the day of the shooting, he carried in his jacket pocket an unfinished letter to his brother Theo about his dismay over his circumstances; it can be read as a farewell note, yet the biographers fail to mention it. (See Tilborgh and Meedendorp 2013, 461–462.)
Naifeh and Smith need to give up their conspiratorial theories and their half-baked and unnecessarily complicated scenarios, and stop misleading themselves and others. Meanwhile, it remains for us to consider all of the evidence, apply good judgment, and adopt the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions (the principle of occam’s razor). Thus we restore the pistol to van Gogh’s hand, just as the facts show and as he repeatedly insisted. We can thus better understand this man who—despite being tortured, or perhaps in part because of it—became one of the greatest artists of all time.
Geberth, Vernon J. 1993. Practical Homicide Investigation, 2nd ed. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.
Naifeh, Steven, and Gregory White Smith. 2011. Van Gogh: The Life. New York: Random House.
———. 2014. “NCIS: Provence: The Van Gogh Mystery,” Vanity Fair, December. (Online at https://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2014/12/vincent-van-gogh-murder-mystery; accessed November 20, 2014.).
Nickell, Joe. 2012. “The ‘Murder’ of Vincent van Gogh,” Skeptical Inquirer 36:5 (Sept./Oct.), 14–17.
Nickell, Joe, and John F. Fischer. 1999. Crime Science: Methods of Forensic Detection. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.
Spitz, Werner U., ed. Spitz and Fisher’s Medicolegal Investigation of Death, 3rd ed. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.
Tilborgh, Louis van, and Teio Meedendorp. 2013. “The Life and Death of Vincent van Gogh,” The Burlington Magazine, July, 456–462.
Weisman, Avery D., and Robert Kastenbaum. 1968. The Psychological Autopsy. New York: Behavioral Publications.