On seeing the gun that might have ended Vincent Van Gogh’s life

The revolver on display at Paris’s Drouot auction house, Saturday June 15, 2019

Whether you’re a fan of Vincent Van Gogh’s art or not, you probably know some of the stories.

The cut-off ear (actually only partially cut off), his suicide in a wheatfield echoed, along with his inner, turbulent despair, in one of his last paintings, “Wheatfield with Crows”.

Most of us can also easily recognize at least a few of Van Gogh’s paintings. That’s what we know: the violence and the passion; death and life. It’s an interesting dichotomy.

And yet, if you read Van Gogh’s letters to his beloved brother Theo, there’s so much more that leans on the side of life. In his wise, passionate words, you find a beautiful soul, someone you’d like to sit down with and get to know better.

Still, he was often considered unbearable to live with. Peaks of madness, strange behavior. I’ve heard one account of him barking in the streets, and of course there is the ear, which he partially cut off after an argument with fellow artist Paul Gauguin (to be fair, though, talented as he was, Gauguin also seems like kind of an asshole). This man would be too much for me, you might find yourself thinking. I know I do.

But Vincent, as he preferred to be called, since the French couldn’t pronounce his last name right (something I, as a fellow expat in France, find hilariously relatable), stays with me. It sounds cliché, because he’s so popular, but try as I might, there is no body of visual art that consistently strikes me, moves me, enthralls me, like Vincent’s canvasses.

When I lived in New York, I would visit the Metropolitan Museum nearly every weekend, and every time I’d stop and sit in front of “Wheatfield with Cypresses” and feel a calm but driving energy roll through me like a breath. That single canvass could calm me, ground me, and remind me that I, myself, am an artist.

Sometimes, that isn’t so easy to believe. I’ve been writing all my life, but there are moments and long, lingering periods when, like all artists - including Vincent himself - I question myself. Recently, having one of those times when the novel I’m writing seems like nothing, when I wondered if I would ever be capable of putting things just so, or if I should give up, I happened to come upon a quotation by Vincent: “If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.” I stopped wallowing and got back to work.

In the early years that I was in Paris, I decided to make a pilgrimage to Auvers-sur-Oise. Vincent’s paintings and words — his life — had been such a part of my life, that I now wanted to travel to where his own life ended, and where he’s now buried beside Theo.

I can’t say if my afternoon in Auvers-sur-Oise was strange and oppressive because of some moodiness on my part, or if there was something more. But the otherwise pretty village felt bleak. The people I came across in museums or streets seemed cold, even a bit mean. A sadness held me down. To this day, when I think of Auvers-sur-Oise, I feel it. I never wonder why this village, with so many clear inspirations of Van Gogh’s paintings, including its church, doesn’t seem to appeal to tourists as much, say, as Monet’s garden at Giverny.

When I arrived at the cemetery and saw those two harsh white stones firmly inscribed with Vincent and Theo’s names, I didn’t think — I actually found myself embracing them and crying. It was finality, and beautiful in its way; if Vincent had to die, at least he was buried beside his brother.

I’ve never wanted to go back to Auvers-sur-Oise, and I’ve never really dwelt on Vincent’s final days there, the suicide attempt gone wrong that led to him dying of a bullet wound to the stomach two days later. I’ve gravitated to his canvasses, showing them to my young son in books and museums. I’ve cherished the lines of Vincent’s words that come into my life from time to time.

And then, last Friday, I found out about the revolver.

Most of us have heard something about Vincent’s suicide, but no one really focuses on the gun. It turns out it was a revolver that was stolen (some sources say purchased) from the Ravoux family, whose inn he was staying at. After he shot himself, he fainted and dropped it in the wheatfield. When he awoke, he couldn’t find it.

Vincent made a long, seemingly impossible walk back to the inn. The revolver, meanwhile, seems to have stayed in place, unknowingly buried in that field by time or tilling. In the 1960’s, a new farmer was tilling the earth and it surfaced — a rusted, worn little revolver, the wood of its handle eroded away. He knew what it was, and gave it to the Ravoux family.

The revolver stayed in Auvers-sur-Oise. A few decades later, it was carefully studied and researched by a local retired man. He and everyone else who has examined the gun, believe that it’s likely to have been the one Vincent fired that July day in 1890. Even without forensic expertise, the details seem to check out perfectly.

In 2016, it was on display at the Rijksmuseum Van Gogh in Amsterdam, which only adds to the likelihood that this is the gun in question (although a recent theory does dispute whether Vincent is the one who actually pulled the trigger).

I found out about the revolver because it was in the news: It was going to be put up for auction, but a few days before that, it would be on display at Drouot, Paris’s most famous auction house.

I went there the following day.

My husband and I love antiques and auctions, and Drouot is a place we know well. Early in our relationship, we’d head there nearly weekly, back before the renovation, when every wall of the place was covered in bright red carpet. Most objects are on display before they’re auctioned off, and you can see them free of charge. This was the case for the revolver. But unlike the other objects and works of art at Drouot, the revolver wasn’t in a simple glass case or free-standing display. It was on a little stand atop an incongruous pile of hay bales that had been brought in for the occasion. On one side of the hay bales was a large picture of the revolver (useful since it was hard to get close to it). On the other, one of Vincent’s self-portraits.

I had thought that seeing the gun would be a sort of epilogue to that day at Auvers-sur-Oise. I’d expected to feel something about Vincent’s last moments, to be able to pay homage again. But the ostentatious display, the distance, the hay bales, the amateurishly photoshopped image of Vincent’s portrait inside the gun barrel that graced the auction catalogue — made everything feel very removed, very false.

For the first time, I was grateful that Auvers-sur-Oise had felt so lonely to me that day; I’d been able to see it for what it was, no tourism, no displays, no artistry.

My husband and I weren’t sure what we would say if our five-year-old son asked about the gun. He did, and I spontaneously decided to try to explain. “Vincent Van Gogh was an amazing man, and a great artist. But his head was broken. He took the gun and hurt himself.” Simple words, and only those made me feel sadness in my throat.

None of this is to say that I think the revolver isn’t the one that ended Vincent’s life. This is just an account of one of his many admirers around the world coming face to face with it. I’m glad that I saw it, especially since, yesterday, it fetched the staggering price of 162,000 euros, or $182,000 (its estimated auction value was “only” 40,000–60,000 euros) and will now probably be in the home of a private buyer — or maybe locked in a safe.

Vincent’s art continues to be sold for many times that price, but is also free for us to discover in museums, in books, and online. His letters can be found in books and on the internet — you can read them all here.

I’d say that’s all that we should do — focus on Vincent’s life, not his death. But both make up his story. Tellingly, though, his vivid canvasses and profound words are like a strong music. The revolver is a dull echo, even an afterthought.

is a writer & worrier. She lives in Paris with an eccentric Frenchman, a clever toddler, & a charming cat. Besides them, she loves books, travel, & cookies.

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