Van Gogh’s Death: Post-Impressions

A new book about the famous Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh is taking the art world by storm. As seen this month on 60 Minutes, Pulitzer Prize- winning authors Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith have written a comprehensive 976-page biography of the Dutch painter whose works now sell for many millions of dollars.[1] Beyond the painstaking research and meticulous scholarship evident in their work, what’s most surprising and controversial about Van Gogh: The Life is its suggestion that van Gogh did not commit suicide as previously believed. Though this has been the view for the last 121 years, Naifeh and Smith argue that van Gogh died at the hands of two mischievous Parisian teenagers who, after spending much of their summer ridiculing the eccentric and life-wearied artist, acquired a revolver and misfired a bullet into his chest.

Of course, without a time machine, no one will ever really know how van Gogh died, but the facts about his life up until that fateful moment are well documented. He grew up interested in art and God, but his teachers and ministers shunned him for his unconventional habits. He had a love interest and desired fellowship with others, but he was rejected and had very few friends. A constant wanderer, deep thinker, and prolific letter writer, van Gogh also suffered from bouts of mental illness and sliced off part of his ear. His paintings reveal that he saw majestic beauty in nature as well as in ordinary people. But in the end, he died a relatively obscure, unappreciated artist wanting to ease the financial burdens of his brother Theo, who had been commissioning Vincent’s unsuccessful artwork for a good portion of his life.

For my own part in the Christian tradition, much of this bears striking resemblance to what happened to Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus too was rejected by the religious authorities of his day, alienated by close friends, and mocked by those who killed him. He had a deep appreciation for nature and craved committed personal relationships despite the betrayal and alienation he felt from some of his closest friends.

Of course, mysteries swirl around Jesus just as they now do for van Gogh, but note what their deaths have in common. On the cross, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”[2] Here, at the height of his persecution and anguish, Jesus evidently was praying for others, hoping to ease their burdens, even as he lay dying for them. For van Gogh, it is reported that when asked by the police whether he shot himself, he strangely answered, “I believe so. Don’t accuse anybody else… It is I who wanted to kill myself.”[3] Are these the words of two suicidal maniacs, or do they reveal far nobler, more forgiving spirits than we ever realized? For Jesus and now for van Gogh, perhaps we ought to rethink our first impressions and form new, post-impressions.

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