A researcher by the name of Van der Veen has discovered what van Gogh was doing on the day he died.
In a letter written by Vincent van Gogh’s brother-in-law, van Gogh’s final painting was described as “a forest scene, full of sun and life”. While researchers puzzled over which painting, exactly, this phrase pertained to, Van der Veen believes he has discovered what it all means.
A long-standing theory has been that van Gogh’s painting Tree Roots was the final painting the letter references. Because the painting matches the description so closely and is an unfinished work by van Gogh (indicating he was unable to finish it before his death), the theory is now the most widely accepted theory as to which painting was really his last.
Van der Veen, however, was able to recognize the tree van Gogh painted and determine its location, as the tree is still standing. Van der Veen claims that, because of the way van Gogh painted the light on the tree roots, van Gogh was likely painting the picture until late in the evening. This would indicate he had spent almost the entire day painting.
So, how does this prove that van Gogh was not murdered? The original murder theory is that van Gogh was approached by two boys from the village and was assaulted by them, eventually succumbing to his wounds. However, if van Gogh spent most of the day painting, there would have been no time for this to happen. His suicide, on the other hand, would still check out time-wise.
However, other scholars still worry that Van der Veen is taking van Gogh’s art too literally. His colors and paintings are known to be abstract and stylized, meaning that it’s possible that the colors van Gogh painted had nothing to do with the light in the sky at all. This would mean that the time Van der Veen estimated is incorrect, keeping the original murder theory in the running.
Indeed, along with this argument comes the idea that perhaps van Gogh was murdered after all: if he was painting all day, this indicates that he was in a sound state of mind. Why would he take his own life in the middle of painting a portrait, and why after an activity that would otherwise indicate his emotional stability?
Van der Veen creates a counterargument that demonstrates van Gogh’s potential thought process behind the painting Tree Roots: in earlier letters, he describes tree roots themselves as expressing “something of life’s struggle”. We know that van Gogh mostly expressed himself through his art: when he was going through depressive episodes, he painted melancholy pieces with dark colors. If he was happy, he focused on the vibrance of nature. If, to van Gogh, tree roots represent life’s struggle, it’s likely that van Gogh was attempting to express a similar struggle of his own at the time.
Although there is still some evidence remaining to the fact that van Gogh could have been murdered, it’s more likely than not that he committed suicide. Whether or not the time of day is correct, the emotional connotations of Tree Roots indicates that van Gogh was experiencing a very deep depressive state on the day of his death. The dark upper tones of the piece, paired with van Gogh’s earlier thoughts on what tree roots represent, demonstrate a clear interpretation of what the struggle of life looked like to van Gogh.