It has been accepted knowledge for over 100 years that Dutch Post-Impressionist artist, Vincent Van Gogh committed suicide in 1890. His tortured life, during which he exhibited more than one obsession and some very unusual, self-injurious habits (like eating paint) which would seemingly substantiate this theory. But details are sketchy, and in 2014, more than one publication not only questioned the theory, but provided some forensic evidence that Van Gogh may, in fact, have been murdered.
In this November, 2014 article in the UK Independent, gunshot expert Dr. Vincent Di Maio is quoted as saying the forensic details of Van Gogh’s wound do not coincide with a bullet having entered his body from close range.
This is the theory extended by Pulitzer Prize winning authors Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith in their bestselling, 2011 biography of the artist, Van Gogh: The Life. These authors believe Van Gogh was accidentally shot by some neighborhood boys who had been bullying him. The artist’s deathbed claim that his wound was self-inflicted was an effort to protect the boys. The authors of this biography consulted with Dr. Di Maio to substantiate their theory.
Di Maio claimed that in none of the forensic accounts on record were evidence of ““soot, powder tattooing and searing of the skin around the entrance (the wound).” Surely, if one were to place the barrel of a gun against their skin and pull the trigger, these marks would be evident.
But the art community was incensed at this new theory. Apparently, the world had become accustomed to, even enamored with the romantic notion of Vincent’s last pathetic act. A curator for the Van Gogh museum is quoted as saying, “Vincent’s suicide has become the grand finale of the story of the martyr for art, it’s his crown of thorns.” (Vanity Fair, Nov. 7th, 2014)
But scientific, forensic evidence doesn’t lie. There were no powder burns, even on either hand of Van Gogh who, with the black powder used to load guns at the time, would surely have been soiled if he had been the one to fire the shot.
So what is the truth? Did Van Gogh truly turn a gun on himself, in the middle of a cornfield, in the middle of executing a painting? Within days after ordering a large number of paints with which to continue his work? It has always seemed odd to me that one, even one as emotionally erratic and impulsive as Van Gogh, would have acted so irrationally, so spontaneously under these circumstances. Why not in his room, alone and despairing as Vincent often was? And why, although Vincent was a prolific letter writer, was there no suicide note?
Could it be that the bullying young boys who had been taunting him truly shot him “accidentally”? Or is there a more sinister explanation?
There is also speculation that the severing of the artist’s ear two years earlier was not his own doing, but an injury inflicted on him by his contemporary and supposed friend, Paul Gauguin. Is it possible Gauguin had something to do with Van Gogh’s murder? History reveals that although Gauguin left the house they shared in Arles in 1888 after Van Gogh’s ear injury, they continued to correspond. Gauguin even proposed the two artists open a studio in Antwerp—in 1890, the year of Van Gogh’s death.
The historical facts and the cultural sentiments collide, and so the mystery continues. All we have left are the canvasses on which Van Gogh poured out his passions. It’s too bad the paint can’t speak. Perhaps if we could access the memories of the artist through the DNA embedded in the linseed oil and pigments he left behind, we would finally know the truth.
But imagine if someone possessed this ability? In my upcoming novel, heroine Rachel Parrish is a DNA analyst with a strange phobia—oil paintings. It seems that even as a child, Rachel could hear “voices” coming from the amalgam of linseed oil and pigments. Skin cells contain DNA, the genetic blueprint of a person. And genetic memory is real. Science believes that memories are held in DNA and preserved.
Rachel Parrish is called upon by my hero, museum curator Duncan Nicklas to help identify some paintings in an unprovenanced collection. One of these paintings is suspected to be a Van Gogh. But will Rachel be willing to brave her fears to help him?
“Pigments.” It’s all in the touch.
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