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The Accidental Death of Vincent Van Goh

December 23, 2015

On December 23, 1888, Vincent Van Gogh famously cut off his own ear and reportedly gave it to a prostitute. A year and a half later he died a short while after a suicide attempt. Or was it an accident?

Van Gogh Self Portrait with Bandaged EarThere’s no better example of the artist not appreciated in his own time than Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh. Now one of the most famous painters of all time (and widely regarded as one of the best, if not the best), his Sunflowers and Starry Night attracted little attention and he died destitute at age 37 in France in 1890. The accepted story is that Van Gogh, who had a history of depression, shot himself in a wheat field, stumbled back to the inn in Auvers-sur-Oise, France, where he lived, and died a short while later.

But authors Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith offer a different theory: After 10 years of research, they published a book in 2011 that posits Van Gogh, bitterly unlucky to the bitter end, was accidentally shot in that field by two young boys playing with a gun.

According to Naifeh and White, there was a widespread understanding among the citizens of Auvers that that is what happened, and that Van Gogh was complicit in the conspiracy to cover it up. Why? To protect two children from the police. Among the evidence they cite in Van Gogh: The Life that points to accidental death: The bullet entered Van Gogh’s abdomen at an odd, obtuse angle. (If it were a suicide, it would have been straight-ahead…and probably not into the abdomen.) The boys were also seen in the field that day playing “cowboys,” as they often did. One of them was dressed in a cowboy costume, and they frequently brought along an old, malfunctioning gun with them.

Van Gogh chose not to report the children and opted to “embrace death,” feeling that he was a burden to his brother, Theo, who supported him financially.

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