In 1965, a farmer in French village found a rusty old revolver in a field that has since been thought to be the gun that Vincent van Gogh used to shoot himself with. Just yesterday, that very gun was sold to a buyer who phoned into the Auction Art- Rémy Le Fur auction in Paris for €162,500 (£144,000; $182,000), nearly tripling the pre-sale estimate of the lot.
Van Gogh, known for his ethereal post-impressionist paintings like The Starry Night (1889), is now also well-known for the mental illnesses he struggled with, particularly in the last 18 months of his life. In 1888, while living in the south of France, the artist’s mental health manifested itself in what the Van Gogh Museum calls the ‘ear incident,’ in which the artist cut off his own ear. Only recently have letters been found written by van Gogh’s doctor, Félix Rey, that confirm the incident actually happened. Two years later, on the evening of July 27th, 1890, van Gogh shot himself in the chest in a field in Auvers-sur-Oise. After falling unconscious, he later came-to and made it back to the Ravoux Inn, where he was staying, where he was eventually found in his room. In an unfinished letter started just days before his suicide on July 23rd, van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo, saying: ‘Ah well, I risk my life for my own work and my reason has foundered in it.’ Van Gogh died some 30 hours later from the wound.
‘Ah well, I risk my life for my own work and my reason has foundered in it.’
More than 70 years, later, the corroded carcass of a 7mm Lefaucheux revolver was found by a farmer in a village near Auvers-sur-Oise, where van Gogh spent his final days. Tests on the gun showed that it was approximately the right age and had spent decades in the field making it fit the bill for van Gogh’s firearm. However, it was too badly damaged to be authenticated as the artist’s gun but it has persisted as the probable weapon van Gogh used to take his own life. Despite these doubts, the gun was exhibited as the suicide weapon by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in 2016 for the first time before exhibiting in Paris ahead of the auction.
The auction, itself, received criticism for the morbid nature of the lot and the willingness to profit off the artist’s suicide. The Van Gogh Institute said in a statement: ‘Nothing suggests that the remains (of the gun) are formally linked with the death of Van Gogh.’ The Institute also criticized the ‘commercialisation of a tragedy which deserves more respect.’
During his lifetime, van Gogh was not a profitable artist but since his death, he has become one of the most influential artists of the 19th century. Today, people flock to see his works, like Sunflowers in the National Gallery in London, which he painting in 1888, and to marvel at the work of a genius who faced difficult personal issues.