Our movie today opens with a blurb in the newspaper. It says:
AUVERS-SUR-OISE — On Sunday July 27, one Van Gogh, aged 37, Dutch painter, staying at Auvers, shot himself with a revolver in the fields, but being only wounded, returned to his room, where he died two days later.
Sadly, that report is true. And it’s pretty self-explanatory, although I think it’s worth pointing out the year because the movie doesn’t do that. The fatal gunshot took place on July 27th, 1890, and Vincent died two days later on July 29th.
The next line of text in the movie explains that the events in the movie took place one year after Vincent van Gogh’s death. And it starts in Arles in the year 1891.
After the opening credits, we see the movie’s main character, a man named Armand Roulin. He’s voiced by Douglas Booth.
Armand picks a fight with someone in a bar there. A policeman comes to investigate, and hands something back to Armand. It’d seem he dropped a letter that he had on him. But Armand insists it’s not his letter…it’s Vincent van Gogh’s letter. Addressed to Theo, Vincent’s brother.
This leads into a conversation with a woman in the bar who overhears Vincent’s name. Apparently she knew Vincent, and said the man was mad. The policeman then returns his own opinion about Vincent.
“No, he wasn’t mad,” the policeman says. “He was…interesting.”
He goes on to say Vincent only got strange when his friend Gaugin came. As the policeman is talking, the movie shifts to a black and white flashback. The scene is at, as the policeman says, “his yellow house.”
According to the movie here, Vincent and Gaugin are wanting to set up Vincent’s home to be an incubator for painters. Initially it starts off enthusiastically, but quickly turns to the two men being at each other’s throats.
Then the movie shows a shot of Vincent walking up to a woman in a bar, handing her a napkin. She opens it to find an ear…Vincent’s ear. He apparently cut off his own ear and handed it to this woman.
The movie doesn’t give a lot more context than that…so let’s stop the movie’s timeline here, because we’ve got a lot to cover already.
Starting with Armand Roulin, he was a very real person. And just like Vincent van Gogh, the Roulin family lived in Arles, France in 1881.
Although one thing the movie doesn’t really mention is that Vincent and Armand knew each other. In fact, they were neighbors. That yellow house the movie mentions was right next door to the Roulin family home.
It’s worth pointing out that Armand was only 16 at the time, so the movie’s probably more accurate that if Vincent knew any of the Roulin family it was probably Armand’s father, Charles, more than Armand himself, but Vincent described Armand in a letter to his brother on December 1st, 1881:
I have done the portraits of a whole family, that of the postman whose head I did earlier – husband, wife, baby, the young boy and the 16-year-old son, all of them characters and very French, though they look Russian.
That painting of Armand that Vincent did served as the inspiration for the look of character we see in the movie…the yellow jacket and all.
And speaking of the letter from Vincent to Theo, that brings up—actually, real quick let me mention the pronunciation of Theo. You see, the movie pronounces it Theo while in my research I found that many other people pronounce it “Tay-O”…but, since the movie uses the Theo pronunciation, that’s what I’ll use for this episode.
Where was I?
Oh, that’s right…Vincent’s letter to Theo.
As you can probably guess, Theo van Gogh was indeed really the brother of Vincent. The movie talks very briefly about Vincent’s family a little later in the movie, but since we’re on the topic, Theo wasn’t Vincent’s only brother.
The movie was correct to mention that the first child born to Vincent’s parents, Theodorus and Anna, was another baby boy they named Vincent.
Of course, as the first-born, it’s not like they planned on having two children with the same name. But the name Vincent was a common one in their family, shared by Theodorus’s own father, so when they had their first child they named him Vincent.
Sadly, little Vincent was stillborn. That was in 1852.
One year later, Theodorus and Anna had another baby boy. In honor of the child they lost and also for Theodorus’s father, this new baby boy was also given the name Vincent.
Four years later, in 1857, Theo was born. But Vincent and Theo weren’t the only children. Anna was born in 1855. Elisabeth was born in 1859. Willemien was born in 1862. The youngest in the family was a boy born in 1867, Cornelis.
None of the other van Gogh children are in the movie, and perhaps there’s a reason for that…after all, it was very true that Vincent was closest with Theo. He was his closest friend, his confidant, and, not to get too far ahead of our story, but it was Theo who helped financially support his older brother for much of their adult lives.
After all, Vincent van Gogh didn’t sell many paintings during his lifetime. It was more common for Vincent to trade paintings for food or his painting supplies than it was to sell them for money.
Today, his paintings are some of the most valuable pieces of art in the world…but Vincent’s tragic life was the epitome of a starving artist. He was broke for most of his life, and unappreciated in his time.
That brings us to the man briefly mentioned by the policeman in the bar in the movie.
In the movie, the character is simply named “Gaugin.” That was his last name…albeit spelled slightly different thanks to language differences.
Paul Gauguin was an artist who befriended the two van Gogh brothers when they both lived in Paris in 1887. But then, in early 1888, Vincent was growing increasingly sick…probably because of all the smoking and drinking he did…and decided to move out of the city to Arles.
It was here that he continued to paint, and many historians believe he had the intention of starting a sort of art colony there. That’d make the implications we see in the movie to be correct, although it’s also worth pointing out that…well, there’s a lot we don’t know.
I’ve mentioned the letters between Theo and Vincent, and quite honestly it’s those letters that are the only reason we know a lot about Vincent. For his part, Theo was a bit of a hoarder. He saved all sorts of paperwork, including the letters from his beloved brother.
On the other hand, Vincent hardly saved any of his. And because he wasn’t famous during his life, the letters serve as the most documentation we have on the events in their lives.
My point in mentioning this is just to lay the groundwork that there’s a lot of things we don’t know for absolutely certain about the events surrounding Vincent’s life.
One great example of that is something we see in the opening moments of the movie…where we see Vincent handing a napkin to a woman with his ear in it.
As the story goes, on December 23rd, 1888, at roughly 11:30 PM or so, Vincent walked into a brothel in Arles, cut off his left ear with a razor blade, wrapped it in a cloth and handed it to a prostitute named Rachel.
Although many decades later, historians would make an amendment to the story that the woman named Rachel was actually named Gabrielle and was the daughter of a local farmer.
When she saw the bloody ear, she fainted and Vincent ran off.
Why would he do this?
Well, that’s a very good question. The truth is we just don’t know for sure.
We don’t even know if he cut off his whole ear. The police at the time who arrived on the scene reported said that he cut off the entire exterior of his left ear. Others close to Vincent who were there in the aftermath of his recovery after nearly bleeding to death from the incident later said that he only cut off the lobe.
Beyond that, there’s been a lot of speculation and many historians have come up with explanations for why he would do that.
The two versions of this that I think are the most plausible both circle around one very important fact that we’ve touched on very briefly: Vincent van Gogh wasn’t well.
Not just physically, though. Vincent suffered from mental health illnesses, too. But we’ll chat about that here in a moment.
One explanation for why he might’ve cut off his ear that people have thrown out there was because of Paul Gauguin. Basically, as the friendship between Vincent and Paul soured, the stress levels rose.
Then, Paul told Vincent he was moving out. As I mentioned earlier, Vincent was broke for most of his life. At that time, he was rooming with Paul in the yellow house.
All of a sudden, Vincent would’ve been faced with the possibility of losing his roommate…would that effect the roof over his head? The food on the table? Maybe.
So, that’s one possible explanation for something that could’ve caused him to go into a state of mind that ended with losing his ear.
The other possible explanation is similar, but has to do with his brother Theo. Something else happening around this time was Theo’s engagement to a woman he’d fallen in love with. Up until that point in Theo’s life, it was Vincent who took up the entirety of Theo’s emotional and financial investment.
With Theo getting married and starting a family, again, Vincent was faced with the possibility of losing his brother. Not in a literal way, but obviously Theo’s priorities would change. He’d have new emotional and financial priorities with the new family.
So, this version suggests that Theo’s new family could’ve been the straw that threw Vincent into the state of mind where he’d cut off his ear.
In the end, we don’t really know…and there are more theories out there, but those are just a couple.
Speaking of Vincent’s state of mind, unfortunately, the science of the time just didn’t know a lot about mental health concerns during his lifetime, so most of the diagnoses for Vincent van Gogh have been done long after he died.
As you can imagine, the truth is a matter of debate since there’s so much we don’t know for sure. But, many sources suggest that Vincent most likely suffered from bipolar disorder. To make matters worse, ever since Vincent was young, he was very physically active. Out of necessity due to, well, not having much money, Vincent walked a lot.
That by itself isn’t bad, of course, but he also didn’t eat much. For example, there’s one story in Vincent’s legend of a lonely evening where Vincent happened upon a dog in the streets of The Hague on the western coast of the Netherlands.
He went to a nearby bakery and took what little money he could spare to buy some bread for the dog. Then, when the dog appeared to scarf that down and still be hungry, he went back to the bakery to spend all the rest of his money to get even more.
That left nothing for him. Yet another night without a meal for Vincent, and yet another skipped meal he didn’t seem to care that he missed.
On top of that, he drank more often than most, but his most common pleasure was smoking a tobacco pipe.
Most doctors who have tried to diagnose Vincent after his death have said that whatever Vincent suffered from was made much worse by the drinking, the smoking, and the overall lack of enough nutrition.
And with each passing day, it got a little worse.
Going back to the movie, using the excuse of delivering the final letter from Vincent to Theo, Armand embarks on a journey of people who know about the brothers.
He learns right away that Theo van Gogh passed away six months after Vincent did.
Sadly, that’s true.
Vincent died on July 29th, 1890.
Like his brother, Theo’s physical health was never great throughout most of his life. After Vincent died, Theo was devastated. Understandably, he was heartbroken.
This impacted Theo’s health; it spiraled down. After being hospitalized in November of 1890, Theo died on January 25th, 1891.
Back in the movie, one of the key people that Armand Roulin talks to is someone named Dr. Gachet. According to the movie, he’s the doctor who tended to Vincent before and during the time that he was shot.
The story the movie lays out is that Vincent checked himself into Saint-Rémy. After a period of time the movie doesn’t indicate, he checked himself out, with a letter suggesting that he was, “perfectly calm.”
Then, six weeks later he walked out to a field near Auvers to paint one day…and shot himself in the chest. But, he didn’t die. Instead, he stumbled back to town and ended up dying two days later.
After laying out that story, the movie starts to poke holes in the official story. It asks questions like: How could someone go from being perfectly calm to suicidal in six weeks? Or, how could someone shoot themselves in the chest at the angle that Vincent claimed to?
The basic idea here the movie is building up is the possibility that maybe Vincent didn’t commit suicide. Maybe he was shot and simply didn’t want anyone else to be charged.
The truth is…well, we don’t know.
The questions the movie surfaces are exactly the sort of questions that historians and art lovers around the world have tried to answer ever since Vincent’s death in 1890.
So, realistically, there’s no way I could hope to magically have the answer in this episode.
With that said, though, let’s lay out the things we do know so you can come up with your own conclusion about what might’ve happened in Vincent’s final days.
As we learned earlier, Vincent’s mental health was in a near-constant state of deterioration. While Vincent was living in Arles, between the situation with Paul Gauguin and his brother getting married and the ongoing battles with mental health, Vincent was pressured to take care of himself by checking into a hospital.
So, in early 1889, he did exactly that. That was, like the movie says, at a psychiatric hospital in Saint-Rémy, France. That’s roughly 16 miles, or about 26 kilometers, from Arles.
Theo paid for the costs. The letter the movie’s referring to came from the doctor who treated Vincent at the hospital. It was sent to Vincent’s brother, Theo, and dated May 26th, 1889.
Here is that letter:
St-Rémy, May 26th 1889
In Answer to your letter of the 23rd inst., I have the satisfaction of telling you that Mr. Vincent has been perfectly calm since his entry into the house, and that every day he observes that his health improves. In the beginning he was subject to distressing nightmares which troubled him, but he observes that these distressing dreams have tended to disappear and decrease in intensity, resulting in a more restful and restorative sleep for him; he also has a better appetite.
In short, since his entry he has made a slight improvement in his state and this makes him hope for a complete recovery in the future.
He is occupied all day drawing in the park, where he now is, but since I see he is perfectly calm, I promised him that I would allow him to go to see different points of view outside of the establishment.
You ask me for my opinion on the likely course of his malady; I must tell you that I reserve my prognosis for the moment, but I am afraid it is serious, because I have reason to believe that the attack that he had was caused by an epileptic condition, and if this is confirmed it will be necessary to be concerned for the future.
I intend to go to Paris during the month of June. I will have the honour of seeing you and better acquaint you about your patient than one can do by letter.
Dr. Th. Peyron.
So, yes, the doctor said that Vincent was “perfectly calm”…but he also said that his prognosis “is serious.”
Sadly, if things did get better for Vincent…it wasn’t for much longer.
As we learned earlier, Theo got engaged in early 1889. Then, in April of 1889, Theo married Johanna Bonger. Most people just called her Jo. In May, Vincent checked himself into the hospital.
For the next few months, Vincent dealt with some serious bouts of depression. He’d be fine for a month, then he’d go through serious depression for a month. He’d be fine for a couple months, then dip into a deep depression for a couple months.
Vincent was at the hospital for about a year. He checked out in May of 1890. It was while he was at the hospital that Vincent painted some of his most famous works of art, including my personal favorite, Starry Night.
His immediate destination after leaving was to stay with his brother and his new sister-in-law. So, he traveled to Paris to stay with them for a short period of time—just a few days—before he found a place on the north side of Paris. That’d be Auvers-sur-Oise.
While in Auvers, Vincent continued to paint and write letters to Theo. Amid discussions of what paintings he was currently working on, the letters themselves would paint a picture of how much Vincent was still suffering.
For example, in a letter dated May 24th, 1890, Vincent wrote this to Theo and Jo:
Myself, all I can do at the moment is say that I think that we all need some rest. I feel—a failure— that’s it as regards me—I feel that that’s the fate I’m accepting. And which won’t change any more.
But one more reason, setting aside all ambition, we can live together for years without ruining ourselves on either side. You see that with the canvases that are still in St-Rémy—there are at least 8 of them—and with the 4 from here, I’m trying not to lose my touch.
That, though, is the absolute truth, it’s difficult to acquire a certain facility of production, and by ceasing to work I would lose it much more quickly, more easily than it cost me in troubles to acquire it. And the prospect darkens, I don’t see a happy future at all.
In the movie, one of the people interviewed by Armand Roulin is the innkeeper’s daughter who was there when Vincent stayed at the inn. Her name is Adeline Ravoux, and she was a real person.
She was only 13 years old in July of 1890, but it wasn’t until she was in her 70s that she wrote what is probably the most detailed account of the final moments of Vincent van Gogh’s life.
According to her, Vincent left the inn on the morning of July 27th. That was perfectly normal as Vincent would often spend the entire day painting a landscape, sky, river, or whatever he was working on at the moment.
But he always returned as the sky turned dark. This time, he didn’t. Adeline recalled that they started to worry about him until, around 9:00 PM, Vincent returned.
He was clutching his stomach.
When Adeline’s mom saw Vincent holding his stomach, she asked if something was wrong. He replied, “No…but I have….” then he trailed off as he climbed up the stairs with much difficulty to get to the room he was staying in.
Adeline’s dad went to check on Vincent and found him lying on his bed groaning. At first, he thought Vincent was ill. But then, Vincent showed him the wound. A gunshot to the chest. Vincent said he tried to kill himself.
According to this version of the story, Vincent said he was in a wheat field painting when he shot himself with a revolver. He passed out from the wound, only coming to when the evening started to cool down. But then in the darkness he couldn’t find the revolver to finish what he had started, so he stumbled back to the inn.
Hearing this, the innkeepers immediately sent word to Dr. Gachet, who was Vincent’s doctor. He came and dressed the wound, but didn’t do much else…he was said to have claimed there wasn’t much more he could do. It was hopeless.
The next morning, messages were sent to the police as well as a telegram to Theo. The police asked Vincent about the shooting, to which he 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.
Theo was quick to arrive by train, getting there that same afternoon. He stayed by his brother’s bed for what would be the rest of his life.
That night, Vincent slipped into a coma and died. Officially, his death certificate is at 1:30 AM on July 29th, 1890.
We don’t know exactly what happened that day. We don’t know what Vincent’s final moments were like, exactly.
Probably some of the best insight we’ll ever get into Vincent’s final moments came from a letter Theo to Elisabeth dated August 5th, 1890:
To say we must be grateful that he rests – I still hesitate to do so. Maybe I should call it one of the great cruelties of life on this earth and maybe we should count him among the martyrs who died with a smile on their face.
He did not wish to stay alive and his mind was so calm because he had always fought for his convictions, convictions that he had measured against the best and noblest of his predecessors.
His love for his father, for the gospel, for the poor and the unhappy, for the great men of literature and painting, is enough proof for that. In the last letter which he wrote me and which dates from some four days before his death, it says, ‘I try to do as well as certain painters whom I have greatly loved and admired.’
People should realize that he was a great artist, something which often coincides with being a great human being. In the course of time this will surely be acknowledged, and many will regret his early 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, ‘The sadness will last forever.’ I understood what he wanted to say with those words.
A few moments later he felt suffocated and within one minute he closed his eyes. A great rest came over him from which he did not come to life again.
In the end, we have to turn to the personal letters and the recollections of people like Adeline Ravoux to paint the picture of what happened to Vincent van Gogh.
How accurate of a story does that tell? Well, that’s for you to decide…