Vincent van Gogh: The “Last Painting” in Auvers-sur-Oise

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Vincent van Gogh: The “Last Painting” in Auvers-sur-Oise

During the 130th anniversary week of Vincent van Gogh’s death, a slew of articles announced the latest revelation and revision for this tragic event. According to Wouter van der Veen, the scientific director of the Van Gogh Institute, the 37 year old Dutch artist was painting Tree Roots on July 27, 1890, at a site located about 150 meters (500 feet) from the Auberge Ravoux, before he shot himself and returned to the inn to die in his own bed on July 29, 1890.  Van der Veen found a postcard from around 1900-1910 that seems to match van Gogh’s interpretative composition. His recently published ebook Attacked at the Root, is available in English and French, on his website Arthénon, at no charge, but a donation is appreciated.  It is beautifully written and fascinating.  Moreover, it is a project produced within the period of our global Covid-19 confinement.

Postcard, c. 1900-10, found by Wouter van der Veen

Postcard, c. 1900-10, found by Wouter van der Veen, scientific director of the Institut Van Gogh in Auvers-sur-Oise. Photo Source: Wouter van der Veen, Arthenon.com

Van Gogh spent the last 70 days of his life in Auvers-sur-Oise, a small town about an hour by train outside of Paris. The fatal gunshot wound, which did not exit his body, seemed to be lodged in his abdominal cavity, close to his spinal cord. Numerous anecdotal accounts allege that the incident took place after lunch at the Auberge Ravoux, his usual routine.  He had set out earlier in the day with his painting gear, rucksack and easel. Most narrators assume that van Gogh shot himself in the stomach after he had worked on a canvas. He then staggered back to the inn without his gear, where he took to his bed, suffered excruciating pain from the infection developing around the irretrievable bullet, and succumbed to this infection about 30 hours after the suicide attempt occurred.

Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Dr. Paul Gachet

Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Dr. Paul Gachet, 1890, Musée d’Orsay. Photo Source: Public Domain/Wikipedia/Google Art Project

Theo van Gogh described in his letter to his wife Johanna Bonger that Vincent seemed comfortable when he arrived at his brother’s bedside on July 28th. He found his Vincent sitting up, calmly smoking a pipe.  Dr. Mazery, a Parisian obstetrician on holiday in Auvers-sur-Oise, had been called immediately. Dr. Gachet, who had been treating Vincent’s mental health, arrived later that evening. The police, summoned by the inn’s proprietor’s thirteen-year-old daughter Adéline Ravoux, asked the artist: “Did you want to commit suicide?” Van Gogh responded: “I believe so.” Adding: “Do not accuse anyone. It is I who wanted to kill myself.”

Photograph from director Vincente Minelli’s Lust for Life (1956)

Photograph from director Vincente Minelli’s Lust for Life (1956) with Kirk Douglas. Produced by John Houston.

Thanks to Irving Stone’s 1934 biographical novel Lust for Life, and the subsequent 1956 Hollywood film with Kirk Douglas in the starring role, Wheatfield with Crows has been considered his final painting at the end of July 1890. Allegedly, van Gogh had borrowed a gun from the inn’s proprietor Gustave Ravoux to get rid of the crows that had been menacing him as he worked. The painting’s agitated image has served as a visual suicide note for most scholars and van Gogh fans. Here, swirling above the golden stalks, we see a murder of crows hover like a dark cloud foreshadowing a storm. The central path, emphasized in converging verdant green lines, careens toward a definitive point, a dead end. There is no way out if one advances forward. Deciphering the symbolism of van Gogh’s dizzying road to nowhere often leads the deductive reasoner toward one conclusion: this artist decided to end it all. He would not leave this wheatfield again.

Van Gogh Museum. Photo Source: Public Domain/Wikipedia

Several interviews recorded by those living in Auvers-sur-Oise during van Gogh’s final days have produced an impressionistic image of van Gogh’s mental health. He had left St. Rémy, where he received treatment from 1889 to May 1890. His friend and his brother Theo’s friend Impressionist Camille Pissarro suggested that Vincent seek out therapy with Dr. Paul Gachet in Auvers-sur-Oise, and initiated the arrangement.

Map of Auvers-sur-Oise

Map of Auvers-sur-Oise, retrieved from Google Maps

Vincent van Gogh’s lucid declaration “do not accuse anyone” struck van Gogh biographers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith as a bit ominous. Why would the artist anticipate this suspicion and immediately silence any further thoughts?  In their 2011 book Van Gogh: A Life, the biographers traced the life and death of Dutch artist through to the assumption that Wheatfield with Crows was his final painting at the end of July 1890. Naifeh and Smith noted, as they walked the half-mile from the wheatfields behind the château to the inn, that the distance would severely tax a wounded person. How was it possible to survive the journey under such duress? Most accounts had claimed he shot himself, fell unconscious and then slowly trudged back to the Auberge Ravoux. Naifeh and Smith didn’t buy it and investigated further. Their findings accuse a group of teenagers, specifically René Secrétan, a Parisian who summered in Auvers-sur-Oise, as the culprits. René had pranked his brother Gaston’s “crazy, Dutch” friend on numerous occasions, and yet Vincent liked Gaston, enjoyed conversing about art with Gaston, and therefore indulgently suffered René’s remorseless taunting.

Auberge Ravoux, c. 1890, with, from left to right, Arthur Gustave Raboux, Germaine Raboux, Raoul Levert, and Adéline Ravoux.

Auberge Ravoux, c. 1890, with, from left to right, Arthur Gustave Ravoux, Germaine Ravoux, Raoul Levert, and Adéline Ravoux. Photo Source: © Van Gogh Museum

In the Naifeh and Smith biography, the fatal gunshot was described as an accident involving a small-caliber gun in René’s possession. The authors’ interview on the CBS’ new magazine 60 Minutes pointed out the missing rucksack, canvas, painting gear, and “suicide” gun in these eyewitness reports. What happened to them after van Gogh’s death? They seemed to have vanished. Julian Schabel’s film At Eternity’s Gate, based on the 1998 book At Eternity’s Gate: The Spiritual Vision of Vincent van Gogh by historian Katherine Powers Erickson, Ph.D.,  concludes with a similar scenario. Van Gogh had not committed suicide, but instead had been accidentally murdered.

Contemporary photograph of the site for Tree Roots and Trunk, rue Daubigny

Contemporary photograph of the site for Tree Roots and Trunk, rue Daubigny. Photo © arthénon

But not all art historians agree. Van Gogh specialist Martin Baily wrote in September 2018:

“For me, the most convincing evidence for suicide is that this is what was believed by Theo and the artist’s colleagues. It is also what Vincent himself said, if we are to believe the words of his loyal friend Émile Bernard. In a letter to the critic Albert Aurier, Bernard wrote two days after the funeral, which he had attended: ‘his suicide had been absolutely deliberate and that he had done it in complete lucidity’. This is what Theo had told Bernard. Additional evidence is the fact that the artist also appears to have attempted suicide while at the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, a few months earlier.”

To buttress Bailey’s assertion, the alleged “suicide gun,” a 7 mm small-caliber pistol, was found behind the château in Auvers-sur-Oise in 1960 and given to the current owners Roger and Micheline Tagliana of the Auberge Ravoux, who left it to their heirs. The gun fetched € 162,500 (about $182,000) at Rémy Le Fur and Associates’ auction in Paris on June 19, 2019.

Vincent van Gogh, Ears of Wheat, June 1890, Van Gogh Museum

Vincent van Gogh, Ears of Wheat, June 1890, Van Gogh Museum. Photo Source: Public Domain/Wikipedia

The question to ask at this point is whether or not ascertaining Vincent van Gogh’s death as suicide really matters? In my opinion, it does not. Yes, van Gogh suffered from mental illness, but his artwork is not about the illness itself or the experience of being a person with a mental illness. Therefore, the artwork should not be pathologized in order to study an artist, who willingly sought treatment for his mental instability. According to the late art historian Charles S. Moffett, curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition Van Gogh as Critic and Self-Critic (1973) and subsequently Executive Vice President of the Department of Impressionism, Modern Art and Contemporary Art at Sotheby’s, Vincent van Gogh painted when he was in complete control of his faculties. Dr. Erickson, in a similar vein, points to his deeply entrenched spirituality, based on his Christian faith, as the inspiration for his fervent Post-Impressionist Expressionism.

Vincent van Gogh, The Plain of Auvers or Wheatfields of Auvers,

Vincent van Gogh, The Plain of Auvers or Wheatfields of Auvers, June-July 1890. Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna. Photo Source: Public Domain/Wikipedia

The recent ballyhoo about Vincent van Gogh’s final painting before his alleged suicide may become yet another theory, susceptible to revision based on further analyses and investigations. Worrying about when, where or if van Gogh committed suicide offers us nothing but a distorted, unhealthy approach to van Gogh’s work, and further marginalizes those who suffer from psychological afflictions. My own theory about van Gogh’s originality comes from my study of Cubism and the poets who influenced Cubism. They spoke of a “Fourth Dimension,” a space-time continuum existing beyond optical and tactile apprehension. Van Gogh seems to access this awareness before Einstein and the Cubists gave it a name. In van Gogh’s paintings, it manifests itself through the thick, sturdy impasto that vibrates with a life force, as if the artist tried to materialize the pulse of nature’s vitality. In Tree Roots, we see green growth among the gnarled anchors straining against erosion. They are resisting death, while maintaining life, firmly holding on rather than letting go.

Wouter van der Veen

Wouter van der Veen. Photo Source: Wouter van der Veen, Arthenon.com

Lead photo credit : Vincent van Gogh, Tree Roots, July 1890, Auvers-sur-Oise Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. Photo Source: Public Domain, Wikipedia

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Beth S. Gersh-Nešić, Ph.D. is an art historian and the director of the New York Arts Exchange, an arts education service that offers tours and lectures in the New York tristate area. She specializes in the study of Cubism and has published on the art criticism of Apollinaire’s close friend, poet/art critic/journalist André Salmon. She teaches art history at Purchase College in Westchester, New York. She has recently published a book with French poet/literary critic Jean-Luc Pouliquen called "Transatlantic Conversation: About Poetry and Art."

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Comments

  • Beth Gersh-Nesic
    2020-08-18 03:41:09
    Beth Gersh-Nesic
    Hi Susanne, Thank you so much for your kind response. I greatly appreciate hearing from my readers. Yes, please read the Naifeh/Smith book and the van der Veen book too. There are so many valuable books on van Gogh. Above all, read the books that discuss his paintings. And read his letters too. Best wishes, Beth

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  • Beth Gersh-Nesic
    2020-08-18 03:38:22
    Beth Gersh-Nesic
    Hi Philip, Yes, we all thought that "Crows Over Wheatfields" or "Wheatfield with Crows" - the same painting - was the last painting and therein lay a "suicide note." Now "Tree Roots" seems to be the last one. I believe Wouter van der Veen's book offers compelling evidence. Thank you for your kind response. Best wishes, Beth

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  • Beth Gersh-Nesic
    2020-08-18 03:33:49
    Beth Gersh-Nesic
    Hi Bernhelm, Please look for my email address at www.nyarts-exchange.com. Thank you! Best wishes, Beth

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  • Beth Gersh-Nesic
    2020-08-18 03:31:56
    Beth Gersh-Nesic
    Dear Peter. Thank you so much for bringing Emil Bergson to our attention. I looked into my copy of "Creative Evolution" and was not able to find a mention of van Gogh. Perhaps in another book? Thank you for any information you might offer us all. Best wishes, Beth

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  • Beth Gersh-Nesic
    2020-08-18 03:29:50
    Beth Gersh-Nesic
    Hi Christopher, You certainly bring a new dimension to this drama. I can't speak for Theo's motivations, but I appreciate your point of view. Many thanks. Best wishes, Beth

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  • Beth Gersh-Nesic
    2020-08-18 03:28:31
    Beth Gersh-Nesic
    Hi Andy, This is an interesting twist. I never thought this would be an option. Thank you, Best wishes, Beth

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  • Beth Gersh-Nesic
    2020-08-18 03:27:19
    Beth Gersh-Nesic
    Hi Denise, Thank you so much for appreciating this "intriguing" art history. I look forward to new developments in the future. Best wishes, Beth

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  • Beth Gersh-Nesic
    2020-08-18 03:24:26
    Beth Gersh-Nesic
    Dear Michele, Thank you so much for your very kind response. I too look forward to returning to France and paying homage to VVG. Best wishes, Beth

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  • Beth Gersh-Nesic
    2020-08-18 03:21:54
    Beth Gersh-Nesic
    Hi Lilianne, Thank you so much for leaving a comment and your kindness. Great to hear from you! Beth

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  • Hazel Smith
    2020-08-17 05:42:40
    Hazel Smith
    Well, Theo got his comeuppance, didn't he - dying just 6 short months after his brother.

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  • Susanne Pepis
    2020-08-17 02:00:56
    Susanne Pepis
    I really enjoyed this article. I have visited many of the sites associated with Van Gogh and your article spurred me on to go to the library and read the Naifeh/White Smith book. Thank you.

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  • Dr. Peter R. Welgan
    2020-08-16 05:01:25
    Dr. Peter R. Welgan
    There is a tendency to attribute the blame to Theo for the lack an adequate response to the injury. In my estimation, the culprit was Dr. Gachet. Still think the guy had ulterior motives.

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  • Philip W Frieze
    2020-08-15 11:00:01
    Philip W Frieze
    From a Christian perspective as an adult, VVG's work is extraordinaire. Your article caught me by surprise. I have believed his last painting was the "crows in the wheat-field". But now because of your research we see further development in Vincent's life. If I may comment on responses from others: what we call life-force or magic are responses limited to our powers of perspective. What is seen in VVG's work is the power of God, the Almighty to express the beauty this individual could see. I could never understand why his work did not sell during his lifetime, but now his work is most sought after. This is a testament to the mystery of God's omniscience.

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  • Bernhelm Bonk
    2020-08-14 09:12:37
    Bernhelm Bonk
    I enjoy to read Bonjour Paris permanently being very intersested in art, especially in Modigliani and the School of Paris and would like to get in contact to Beth S. Gersh- Nesic because I have a story for her to tell about the discovery of a lost early self-portrait by Amedeo Modigliani from his first creative period in Paris which should be of great interest to your readers

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  • Dr. Peter R. Welgan
    2020-08-14 05:42:35
    Dr. Peter R. Welgan
    You will find the basis of Van Gogh's inspiration and "intuitive sense of nature's vitality in the basic works of French philosopher, Emil Bergson. If you haven't read his works, check out his famous philosophical theories in his book entitled, "Elan Vital." You will find Bergson to be the prognosticator of your views of Van Gogh's inspired paintings.

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  • Christopher
    2020-08-14 02:24:56
    Christopher
    Aha ! Another reason to suspect Theo’s true motivation’s (wether Theo was aware of them or not ) thank you for mentioning it . Good point ! :-)))

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  • Christopher Callen
    2020-08-13 09:53:46
    Christopher Callen
    Thank you for this article. I have been a fan and student of Van Gogh since I was 11 years old, when my mother , an artist, took me to a traveling retrospective shown at the Los Angeles Museum of Art. I was mesmerized from that day forward. I cannot but echo the sentiments above re Van Gogh's death not being a suicide. Although I would differ that it "doesn't matter". I base my conclusion on who said what when . For me, in what I have researched ....I would not trust his "devoted" brother Theo's account of anything. You see this "suicide" was primarily based ...if you trace it ....on Theo's narrative. Others based their accounts on his account. With deeper investigation I believe Vincent's brother appears to have ulterior motives throughout Vincent's life. Yes , I realize it is heretical ---that Theo appears to always be painted as Vincent's "caretaker" and "savior". But it is often the "sweet little old lady " who has put the poison in the tea cup. I suggest a deeper look might reveal Theo, as a person, wanted to look like the Saint to society... having this "poor artist brother" ) but whose actions belie any real intention to help. Rather, Theo , I suggest that was an enabler at best and the purveyor of evil intentions toward his brother at worst. For instance, I marvel that Theo never helped him sell a painting! This seems extraordinarily ludicrous ---with all of Theo 's connections in the art world? In fact Theo never saw Vincent's work as good . He often and repeatedly out - right criticized Vincent's aesthetic. As an artist myself ---I can imaging being in constant contact with someone who is continually belittling my work. That is suppression of the highest degree. And people who do that---subtly put people down on the one hand and say "it is for your own good"--- are people who want to keep others small and unsuccessful. Their only motivation is to control. That is how it appears to me ---making Vincent dependent on him. Sorry didn't mean to digress, but it is an aspect that I think is sorely overlooked. This is a beautiful painting and so fascinating to see how it was inspired by the postcard. And, I could not agree more that Van Gogh has the magical capacity to capture the "life force "in his work like no other before or since, in a way that resonates with millions now and millions to come. Somehow he has done the impossible; imbued his canvases literally... with LIFE. So now, 130 years late we can not only see ...but feel it. That is the extraordinary achievement by this man who devoted his life to creating a whole new level of communication in his art. I join you in celebrating that achievement. And again ---Thank you for a beautiful and intriguing article!

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  • Andy Strote
    2020-08-13 09:48:30
    Andy Strote
    Thank you for this article. I have never understood why VVG wasn’t brought to a Paris hospital. It’s just an hour with frequent train service. Parisian doctors were well trained in gun shot wounds given 1870. He lay in his bed for 36 hours, slowly dying. Theo wasn’t thinking straight.

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  • Denise Steele
    2020-08-13 08:32:48
    Denise Steele
    Wonderful article, thank you so much for your perspective, Beth. It is truly an art history mystery, and your interpretation of the evidence is intriguing! I will have to visit.

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  • Michele Kurlanded
    2020-08-13 06:02:34
    Michele Kurlanded
    I have visited Auvers several time and did some reading about VVG last time. Had the rulers of France permitted my entry and I could have actually occupied the airbnb I had leased for September, Auvers is one place I would have revisited. VVG may have not spent that much time there, but seeing the sites where he painted and the subject matter of those paintings , touring the good doctor Gachet's home, eating at the Auberge and visiting his little room there- still furnished as when he was its occupant, and visiting the graves of Vincent and his brother in the tiny cemetery that is a short walk from town all produce a feeling that his spirit never left. I adored your well researched and well written article and your seeming ability to separate chaff and wheat and avoid easy conclusions or assumptions. Thank you!! I WILL. read the book and prepare for my next visit when they finally decide I am not persona non grata.

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  • Lilianne Milgrom
    2020-08-13 05:52:12
    Lilianne Milgrom
    So interesting and thorough - thank you Beth! I agree that the debate over his death should not eclipse his life's work.

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  • Beth Gersh-Nesic
    2020-08-12 07:25:25
    Beth Gersh-Nesic
    Thank you so much, Brian, for this enthusiastic response to my article. I greatly appreciate it. Please read Wouter van der Veen's book. It's free, it's easy to download, very well researched, and easy to read - not dry academic writing. The book itself is beautiful! Everyone has something to offer on VVG. I am just one person and I have sat through Post-Mortem symposia on VVG created for and by psychologists, psycho-therapists and psychiatrists. So I here,at last, I have stated my opinion in public.

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  • Brian Wrigh
    2020-08-11 06:01:03
    Brian Wrigh
    This brilliant well-researched article was a joy to read. I especially appreciate the author's refusal to pathalogize the art and the interpretive push at the end into the mythic "fourth dimension" that foreshadows cubist intentions. Brava!

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  • Beth Gersh-Nesic
    2020-08-11 04:54:41
    Beth Gersh-Nesic
    Thank you so much, Hazel, - I am thrilled you too are a VVG fan.

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  • Beth Gersh-Nesic
    2020-08-11 04:51:39
    Beth Gersh-Nesic
    Thank you, Marilyn, so much for reading this essay. Please read Wouter van der Veen's book and the Naifeh/Smith books for more info. Never enough on VVG - especially his art.

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  • Marilyn Brouwer
    2020-08-10 07:56:45
    Marilyn Brouwer
    I'd never heard the murder theory before, so much easier to believe that because of Van Gogh's well documented mental history and his tortured paintings, that suicide was the obvious cause. Fascinating article but as Beth says, nothing detracts from Van Gogh's genius however he dramatically expired. Thanks Beth.

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  • Hazel Smith
    2020-08-10 02:42:52
    Hazel Smith
    Fantastic article. What a great art history mystery.

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