Death of Vincent van Gogh  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The death of Vincent van Gogh, the Dutch painter, occurred in the early morning of 29 July 1890, in his room at the Auberge Ravoux in the village of Auvers-sur-Oise in northern France. He had suffered a gunshot wound two days earlier not far from the inn when he shot himself in the chest, wishing to end his life.



Deteriorating mental health

In 1889, Van Gogh experienced a deterioration in his mental health. As a result of incidents in Arles leading to a public petition, he was committed to hospital. At the suggestion the Reverend Salles, an acquaintance of the artist, Van Gogh's brother Theo persuaded him to spend some time in an asylum in nearby Saint-Rémy in the hope that his health would improve. He entered the asylum on a volunatry basis in early May 1889. His mental condition did not improve and considerably worsened the following December and in the early months of 1890.

Changing mood at Auvers from May 1890

Shortly before leaving Saint-Rémy, Van Gogh told how he was suffering from his stay in the hospital: "The surroundings here are beginning to weigh me down more than I can say... I need some air, I feel overwhelmed by boredom and grief."

On arriving at Auvers, Van Gogh's health was still not very good. Writing on 21 May to Theo he comments: "I can do nothing about my illness. I am suffering a little just now — the thing is that after that long seclusion the days seem like weeks to me." But by 25 May, the artist was able to report to his parents that his health had improved and that the symptoms of his disease had disappeared. His letters to his sister Wilhelmina on 5 June and to Theo and his wife Jo on about 10 June indicate a continued improvement, his nightmares almost having disappeared.

On about 12 June, he wrote to his friends Mr and Mrs Ginoux in Arles, telling them how his health had suffered at Saint-Rémy but had since improved: "But latterly I had contracted the other patients' disease to such an extent that I could not be cured of my own. The other patients' society had a bad influence on me, and in the end I was absolutely unable to understand it. Then I felt I had better try a change, and for that matter, the pleasure of seeing my brother, his family and my painter friends again has done me a lot of good, and I am feeling completely calm and normal."

Furthermore, an unsent letter to Paul Gauguin which Van Gogh wrote around 17 June is quite positive about his plans for the future. After describing his recent colourful wheat studies, he explains: "I would like to paint some portraits against a very vivid yet tranquil background. There are the greens of a different quality, but of the same value, so as to form a whole of green tones, which by its vibration will make you think of the gentle rustle of the ears swaying in the breeze: it is not at all easy as a colour scheme." On 2 July, writing to his brother, Van Gogh comments: "I myself am also trying to do as well as I can, but I will not conceal from you that I hardly dare count on always being in good health. And if my disease returns, you would forgive me. I still love art and life very much..."

The first sign of new problems was revealed in a letter Van Gogh wrote to Theo on 10 July. He first states, "I am very well, I am working hard, have painted four studies and two drawings," but then goes on to say, "I think that we must not count on Dr Gachet at all. First of all, he is sicker than I am, I think, or shall we say just as much, so that's that... I don't know what to say. Certainly my last attack, which was terrible, was in a large measure due to the influence of the other patients." Later in the letter he adds, "For myself, I can only say at the moment that I think we all need rest — I feel exhausted (in French Je me sens - raté)." In an even more despairing tone he adds: "And the prospect grows darker, I see no happy future at all."

In another letter to Theo on about 10 July, Van Gogh explains: "I try to be fairly good-humoured in general, but my life too is threatened at its very root, and my step is unsteady too." He then comments on his current work: "I have painted three more large canvases. They are vast stretches of corn under troubled skies, and I did not have to go out of my way very much in order to try to express sadness and extreme loneliness." But he adds, "I'm fairly sure that these canvases will tell you what I cannot say in words, that is, how healthy and invigorating I find the countryside."

In a letter to his parents written around 12 July, Van Gogh again appears to be in a far more positive frame of mind: "I myself am quite absorbed in that immense plain with wheat fields up as far as the hills, boundless as the ocean, delicate yellow, delicate soft green, the delicate purple of a tilled and weeded piece of ground, with the regular speckle of the green of flowering potato plants, everything under a sky of delicate tones of blue, white, pink and violet. I am in a mood of almost too much calm, just the mood needed for painting this."

His brother Theo recognised that that Vincent was experiencing problems. In a letter dated 22 July 1890, he wrote, "I hope, my dear Vincent, that your health is good, and since you say that you write with difficulty, and don't talk about your work I am a little afraid that there is something troubling you or not going right." He went on to suggest he consulted his physician, Dr Gachet.

On 23 July, Van Gogh wrote to his brother, stressing his renewed involvement in painting: "I am giving my canvases my undivided attention. I am trying to do as well as certain painters whom I have greatly loved and admired... Perhaps you will take a look at this sketch of Daubigny's garden — it is one of my most carefully thought-out canvases. I am adding a sketch of some old thatched roofs and the sketches of two size 30 canvases representing vast fields of wheat after the rain."

The shooting

Adeline Ravoux, the innkeeper's daughter who was only 13 at the time, clearly recalls the incidents of July 1890. In an account written when she was 76, reinforced by her father's repeated reminders, she explains how on 27 July, Van Gogh left the inn after breakfast. When he had not returned by dusk, given the artist's regular habits, the family became worried. He finally arrived after nightfall, probably around 9 pm, holding his stomach. Adeline's mother asked whether there was a problem. Van Gogh started to answer with difficulty, "No, but I have..." as he climbed the stairs up to his room. Her father thought he could hear groans and found Van Gogh curled up in bed. When he asked whether he was ill, Van Gogh showed him a wound near his heart explaining: "I tried to kill myself." During the night, Van Gogh explained he had set out for the wheat field where he had recently been painting. During the afternoon he had shot himself with a revolver and passed out. Revived by the coolness of the evening, he had tried in vain to find the revolver to finish himself off. He then returned to the inn.

Adeline goes on to explain how her father sent Anton Hirschig, also a Dutch artist staying in the inn, to alert the local physician who proved to be absent. He then called on Van Gogh's friend and physician, Dr Gachet, who dressed the wound but left immediately, considering it was a hopeless case. Her father and Hirsching spent the night at Van Gogh's bedside. The artist sometimes smoked, sometimes groaned but remained silent almost all night long, dozing off from time to time. The following morning, two gendarmes visited the inn, questioning Van Gogh about his attempted suicide. In response, he simply replied: "My body is mine and I am free to do what I want with it. Do not accuse anybody, it is I that wished to commit suicide."

As soon as the post office opened on the Monday morning, Adeline's father sent a telegram to Van Gogh's brother, Theo, who arrived by train during the afternoon. Adeline Ravoux explains how the two of them watched over Van Gogh who fell into a coma and died at about one o'clock in the morning. (The death certificate records the time of death as 1.30 am.) In a letter to his sister Lies, Theo told of his brother's feelings just before his death: "He himself wanted to die. When I sat at his bedside and said that we would try to get him better and that we hoped that he would then be spared this kind of despair, he said, "La tristesse durera toujours" (The sadness will last forever). I understood what he wanted to say with those words."

In her memoir of December 1913, Theo's wife Johanna refers first to a letter from her husband after his arrival at Vincent's bedside: "He was glad that I came and we are together all the time... Poor fellow, very little happiness fell to his share, and no illusions are left him. The burden grows too heavy at times, he feels so alone..." And after his death, he wrote: "One of his last words was, 'I wish I could pass away like this,' and his wish was fulfilled. A few moments and all was over. He had found the rest he could not find on earth..."

Emile Bernard, an artist and friend of Van Gogh, who arrived in Auvers on 30 July for the funeral, tells a slightly different story, explaining that Van Gogh went out into the countryside on the Sunday evening, "left his easel against a haystack and went behind the château and fired a revolver shot at himself." He tells us how Van Gogh had said that "his suicide had been absolutely deliberate and that he had done it in complete lucidity... When Dr Gachet told him that he still hoped to save his life, Van Gogh replied, 'Then I'll have to do it over again.'"

The funeral

In addition to the account given by Ameline Ravoux, Emile Bernard's letter to Albert Aurier provides details of the funeral which was held in the afternoon of 30 July 1890. Van Gogh's body was set out in "the painter's room" where it was surrounded by the "halo" of his last canvases and masses of yellow flowers including dahlias and sunflowers. His easel, folding stool and brushes stood before the coffin. Among those who arrived in the room were artists Lucien Pissarro and Auguste Lauzet. The coffin was carried to the hearse at three o'clock. The company climbed the hill outside Auvers in hot sunshine, Theo and several of the others sobbing pitifully. The little cemetery with new tombstones was on a little hill above fields that were ripe for harvest. Dr Gachet, trying to suppress his tears, stammered out a few words of praise, expressing his admiration for an "honest man and a great artist... who had only two aims, art and humanity."

Selection of Van Gogh's final works

Van Gogh was particularly productive during his last few weeks in Auvers, completing over 70 paintings as well as a number of drawings and sketches. They cover landscapes, portraits and still lifes. Some of them appear to reflect his increasing loneliness while many others, with their bright colours, convey a more positive attitude. The letters he wrote during his last two months offer a considerable amount of background on Van Gogh's relentless will to paint coupled with frequent periods of despondency. Not only was he suffering from his mental illness but he was also deeply concerned for his brother Theo who was first worried about the ailing health of his son and was then confronted by serious problems with his business.

See also

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