Found: Site of van Gogh's last painting

Researcher Wouter van der Veen, scientific director at the Van Gogh Institute, showing a copy of the postcard (left) which enabled him to identify the location of Vincent van Gogh's final painting, Tree Roots (below).
Researcher Wouter van der Veen, scientific director at the Van Gogh Institute, showing a copy of the postcard (above) which enabled him to identify the location of Vincent van Gogh's final painting, Tree Roots.PHOTOS: REUTERS
Researcher Wouter van der Veen, scientific director at the Van Gogh Institute, showing a copy of the postcard (left) which enabled him to identify the location of Vincent van Gogh's final painting, Tree Roots (below).
Researcher Wouter van der Veen, scientific director at the Van Gogh Institute, showing a copy of the postcard which enabled him to identify the location of Vincent van Gogh's final painting, Tree Roots (above).PHOTOS: REUTERS

Researcher says he identified the spot by examining 20th-century postcard of French village

PARIS • A researcher has claimed to have discovered the exact spot where Vincent van Gogh painted his last canvas before his mysterious death from a gunshot wound.

The tortured Dutch artist had been working on Tree Roots, a jumble of brightly coloured tree trunks, roots and stumps near Auvers-sur-Oise, north of Paris, on a hot July day in 1890 when he staggered back, wounded, to the village inn.

Dr Wouter van der Veen, of the Van Gogh Institute, which looks after the artist's room at the Auberge Ravoux where he spent his final 70 days, said most of the tangle of roots is still there, a stone's throw from the inn.

Experts at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam have backed the finding, saying it was "an interpretation, but it looks like it is indeed true".

The museum's director Emilie Gordenker and the great-grandson of van Gogh's younger brother Theo travelled to the village on Tuesday to unveil a plaque at the spot.

Vincent and Theo - who had supported his brother for much of his life and outlived him by just six months - are buried next to each other in the village cemetery.

Dr van der Veen said he made the breakthrough from a postcard of the village from the turn of the 20th century, which shows an embankment with the trees on the main road through the hamlet, 30km north of Paris.

He was going through some documents during the coronavirus lockdown when "my eye was caught by a detail from the postcard".

DISPROVING LONG-HELD THEORY

The researcher compared it with the painting and found that the trunks and roots corresponded.

"Discovering the place where van Gogh painted his last and most mysterious work is a waking dream which I am still trying to comprehend," he added.

Dr Teio Meedendorp of the Van Gogh Museum said the painter would have often passed the spot "going out to the fields behind the chateau of Auvers where he painted in the last week of his life".

Because of the way the light falls in the painting, Dr van der Veen said van Gogh had probably still been working on it late in the afternoon, "about 5pm or 6pm".

This, he argued, could help disprove the controversial theory that van Gogh had not killed himself, but had been drunk and fought with two local boys who shot him by accident.

The theory was first floated in a biography of the painter by Pulitzer Prize-winning authors Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith nine years ago, and featured in the 2018 movie At Eternity's Gate, starring Willem Dafoe.

Its director, American painter Julian Schnabel, said when the film was released that van Gogh had probably been murdered.

He insisted that a man who had painted 75 canvases in almost as many days at Auvers-sur-Oise was unlikely to be suicidal.

Schnabel also claimed the painting material van Gogh had that day was never found. "It is strange to bury your s*** if you are committing suicide," he added.

 

SYMBOL OF LIFE'S STRUGGLES

But Dr van der Veen dismissed the theories as "lousy", insisting that for him, the painting was van Gogh's final "testament, a farewell letter... Suicide had been an option for him for a year".

Van Gogh had been in an asylum near Arles and released just three months earlier.

"The thicket of roots was a symbol of the struggles of life. We cut down the tree and from their stumps new shoots appear.

"It makes sense, the theme of life and death, and eliminates all these lousy theories which do little for his memory," Dr van der Veen said.

The revolver with which van Gogh is believed to have shot himself in the chest sold for €162,500 (S$263,000) at a Paris auction last year.

Discovered in a field near the village, it was billed as "the most famous weapon in the history of art".

The rusty 7mm Lefaucheux had already been exhibited at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

While the Van Gogh Institute said the link with the painter could not be proven conclusively, the bullet extracted from his stomach was the same calibre as the one used for the Lefaucheux revolver.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 31, 2020, with the headline 'Found: Site of van Gogh's last painting'. Print Edition | Subscribe