Why it matters that Van Gogh probably-maybe, quite possibly, didn’t kill himself.
I’m not an art history major, but I love Van Gogh, his painting starry night was one of the first times I looked at a work by a classical painter and saw something that could be called a reflection. I was an angsty almost teen, looking at a large high-quality print, and I could not look away. In the brush strokes there was a poetry that spoke of so much, grief, confusion, anger, but also an adoration for the soothing nature of simply looking up at the night sky and thinking Isn’t that something. His vibrant, excited use of color is something I use, or perhaps abuse, in my own work. And perhaps an expression of the illness that plagued Vincent.
His paintings, his drawings, all held this fantastic quality of someone trying so hard to hold onto something fleeting.
He knew he wasn’t well, he had a doctor, he had treatment, and by many accounts, in the days and weeks before his death he was well. Happy, he looked to the future with hope and even excitement. He had ordered paint, talking about how many paintings he had planned. Unlike the common sentiment of him being unknown and undiscovered, while he was alive, he had been starting to gain traction. Just months before his death he had been featured in a magazine in Paris.
Many times when someone commits suicide there are the questions of why did they do it? What did I miss? Could I have done anything different? Could they have been saved? Could this tragedy have been prevented? These and more haunt anyone who loss a loved one to suicide. And those questions were asked by me when thinking of Van Gogh. Looking at starry night, and so many other of his paintings I saw someone with a troubled soul, but I also saw someone in love with the act of observation. Someone who was looking at something and wanted others to see just how wonderful it was. I saw pain, but I did not see despair.
And yet, the narrative persists. Van Gogh killed himself. He is the icon of the tortured artist, who died alone and unsuccessful. His life’s work only becoming known after his tragic death. Even an episode of Doctor who affirms that narrative. Every art teacher that talked about Van Gogh affirms that narrative. Until recently, almost everyone agreed with that idea. When Van Gogh : the Life was published, this alternative theory, that it was more likely murder or manslaughter, that ended Vincent’s life, it was met with hostility. The art community it seems, wanted to hold onto its martyr.
But how much different is the story of the trouble artist, who supported by his loving brother Theo, begins to win the battle against his demons and is tragically killed before his work comes into his full glory. How much more powerful is the idea that he, through love and support, and the help of a doctor, was actually emotionally healthy after being very unwell before? Of a troubled teen that can’t seem to find his place, the adult unable to keep a job, who is on a path to become a renowned artist, only to have his life cut short by a stupid teenager?
It changes the narrative. It takes one of the most depressing stories (for me at least) in art history, and makes it into something hopeful.
And that’s why it matters, that quite possibly, Van gogh did not end his life. That he was, by a few accounts at least a little happy. His life had purpose.
Also, if you haven’t seen it, go watch Loving Vincent. It’s beautiful.