Last evening my wife and I saw the new movie Loving Vincent and thoroughly enjoyed it.
The film is unique in that it is animated in the style of Van Gogh. Since all the characters were the subjects of paintings, watching as Van Gogh’s art comes alive is a majestic viewing experience. Lest you think it has a cartoonish look, rest assured it does not. The manner in which the film was made began with shooting the scenes in a conventional method, i.e. with actors and scenery, but then each frame was meticulously painted by a team of 100 artists in the style of Van Gogh.
The movie takes place over a year after his death from a gun shot wound to his stomach, which because it missed his vital organs, Van Gogh suffered for 29 hours before dying. The story at the time and ever since has been that Van Gogh shot himself. The film calls that conclusion into question but ultimately leaves it unanswered, contrary to the 2011 biography of Van Gogh by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. They come down squarely on the side of homicide – most likely accidental – instead of suicide..
Smith and Naifeh spent ten years writing their enormous book, five years on research alone at the Van Gogh Foundation archives, in Amsterdam. Their conclusion: the suicide yarn was based on bad history, bad psychology, and, as a definitive new expert analysis makes clear, bad forensics.
Van Gogh himself wrote not a word about his final days: he left no suicide note—odd for a man who churned out letters so profligately. A piece of writing allegedly found in his clothes after he died turned out to be an early draft of his final letter to his brother Theo, which he posted the day of the shooting, July 27, 1890. That letter was upbeat—even ebullient—about the future. He had placed a large order for more paints only a few days before a bullet put a hole in his abdomen. Here the film parts ways with Smith and Naifeh since most of the film concerns the delivery of this last letter, which the filmmakers turn into a sort of suicide note.
Despite Naifeh and White’s accumulation of forensic evidence to the contrary, they write:
Years ago, when all this began to emerge from our research, a curator at the Van Gogh Museum predicted the fate that would befall such a blasphemy on the Van Gogh gospel. “I think it would be like Vincent to protect the boys and take the ‘accident’ as an unexpected way out of his burdened life,” he agreed in an e-mail. “But I think the biggest problem you’ll find after publishing your theory is that the suicide is more or less printed in the brains of past and present generations and has become a sort of self-evident truth. Vincent’s suicide has become the grand finale of the story of the martyr for art, it’s his crown of thorns.”
What is actually true will probably never be settled, but I heartily recommend both the biography and the film.
Van Gogh: The Life
by Steven Naifeh, Gregory White Smith
Though countless books have been written about Van Gogh, and though the broad outlines of his tragedy have long inhabited popular culture, no serious, ambitious examination of his life has been attempted in more than seventy years. Naifeh and Smith have re-created Van Gogh’s life with an astounding vividness and psychological acuity that bring a completely new and sympathetic understanding to this unique artistic genius whose signature images of sunflowers and starry nights have won a permanent place in the human imagination.