The Death of an Artist and His Evening in the Wheat Field

The Death of an Artist and His Evening in the Wheat Field

The field stretched as far as the eye could see, aureate and reposeful. The wheat stalk bowed lazily, as if succumbing to the weight of the near palpable sense of tranquility hanging in the air. The willows wept gently in the late afternoon breeze, under the dying sun. It was a picturesque view of calm serenity and for the artist bleeding to death among the wheat, may have provided the moment of peace he had always prayed for. 

What happened to Vincent van Gogh on that idle summer’s day in 1890 had never really been contested. He was a tortured man, a failing artist, and a recluse. He had spent the year before his death in an asylum that he admitted himself into after cutting part of his ear off (it was during this time that he drew one of his most iconic paintings, The Starry Night). He was also feeling extreme bouts of guilt for being a burden on his younger brother, Theo, who was financially supporting his career. Vincent was plagued with self-hate for failing to pay back his brother for his kindness, unconditional love, and generosity. This was a man with a history of self-harm and depression who also possibly possessed an incentive to end his life. To those that knew him, Vincent’s suicide may have been unsurprising… and almost long overdue. 

The truth, however, as it is in most cases, appears to be a bit more complicated.  

Vincent occupied an inn in the French village Auvers-sur-Oise at the time of his death. His daily routine comprised having breakfast at the inn, trekking to the fields with his art equipment, and spending the whole day painting before returning to the inn at dusk. On the 27th of July 1890, van Gogh did not return at his usual time. The inn-keeping family, who had a soft spot for the idiosyncratic yet mild-mannered man, had started to worry about the troubled artist just as he staggered back to the inn, clasping his stomach. After checking in on him, the family discovered that he had been shot. When inquired if he had shot himself Vincent had concurred, but not before casting a look of confusion over this query. Despite medical intervention, Vincent passed away two days later at the age of 37. 

With Vincent’s posthumous fame, biographers, historians, and forensic scientists alike have found inconsistencies that bring into question what is popularly believed to have happened in the wheat fields of Auvers that day. 

Vincent van Gogh’s shy and “peculiar” nature often made him fall victim to the incessant cruelty of the local teenaged boys. Vincent, who often found himself companionless and lonely, would endure their bullying for the sake of company. 

The alternate theory on Vincent’s death (propagated mainly by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith in their biography, Van Gogh: The Life) suggests that one of these teenagers who tormented Vincent, accidentally shot the artist. This theory was in no way novel. Scholars researching on van Gogh in the 1930s uncovered from the locals of Auvers that a “group of boys” had “accidentally shot the artist van Gogh” and that Vincent had covered up for them. Apparently, this had been a well-circulated rumour in the village following Vincent’s death. 

One of the boys that pestered Vincent in Auvers even possessed a gun. The question of where van Gogh had obtained the gun to shoot himself had already been a mystery since guns were a rarity in this sequestered village in northern France.

The odd placement of Vincent’s gunshot wound also does not corroborate. Van Gogh was shot in the chest, at an angle that would have been difficult for the right-handed artist to shoot himself in. Upon studying his fatal injury, modern forensic scientists have inferred that the artist was most likely shot from a distance, making it improbable for the gunshot to be self-inflicted.    

The spot in which Vincent committed the shooting has also been up for debate. Van Gogh stated that he shot himself in a wheat field. However, locals claim to have heard a gunshot from a different area that, coincidentally, was near the house of the teenaged boy with the gun. It appears as though Vincent was trying to place himself elsewhere from the actual location of the incident to protect the identity of his shooter. Moreover, as soon as these events transpired, local authorities set out to recover the gun and Vincent’s art equipment. To their surprise, all of it had seemingly vanished into thin air. To this day, these items remain unrecovered.  

We may never truly know what happened to Vincent at Auvers that day. The van Gogh Museum, with good reason, still maintains that the artist ended his own life. While many credit Vincent’s mental afflictions as proof for his suicide, it is important to keep in mind that sometimes, these same factors that lead to suicide can also make an individual extremely vulnerable to the violence and cruelty of others.  

Finally, if this alternate theory was indeed true, the question remains as to why Vincent covered up for his teenaged tormentors. This is possibly the most complicated question of all. Upon reading his letters addressed to Theo, we see Vincent as a man who, despite grappling with mental anguish, thought deeply and felt deeply for others. Perhaps Vincent believed in forgiveness. He had been a lay preacher in his twenties and was a religious man his whole life. It is possible that he did not want to incriminate a group of boys for what he thought was an accident caused by juvenile behaviour. Or perhaps he chose to do good, regardless of the hand he was dealt with. After all, he was the man who saw a sky filled with stars from the window of a mental institution and, despite his inner unabating sorrow, decided he would paint its beauty.  

Rtr. Shayari Jayasooriya

What am I in the eyes of most people? – a nonentity, an eccentric […] somebody who has no position in society, the lowest of the low […] even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show throughmy work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. That is my ambition, based less on resentment and more on love… based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion. Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me

Vincent van Gogh in a letter to Theo van Gogh, dated 21st July 1882

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