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Vincent Van Gogh: Was The Legendary Painter Murdered? (VIDEO)

First Posted: 10/17/2011 1:29 am Updated: 07/01/2012 6:19 pm

For 121 years, it has been widely accepted that Vincent Van Gogh killed himself in a field in Auvers-sur-Oise, France, ending a troubled, solitary life on his own terms.

But a new book, along with a '60 Minutes' segment that aired on Sunday night, explores a very different possibility: that Van Gogh was accidentally shot and killed by one or more local children, and chose to cover up their crime before he died.

Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, who won the Pulitzer prize for their book “Jackson Pollock: An American Saga,” propose such a possibility in their new tome "Vincent Van Gogh: A Life".

The authors told CBS that they uncovered many inconsistencies with the original story of Van Gogh's death. For instance, after being shot, Van Gogh arrived at the Auberge Ravoux inn, where he lived, clutching his stomach--but the field where he supposedly shot himself was more than a mile of rough terrain away. Meanwhile, a local man claimed he heard the fatal gunshot not in the wheat field, but in a farmyard in town, less than a half mile from the inn.

They also observe that doctors who attended to Van Gogh noted that the bullet was fired some distance away from the artist's body, at an odd angle for an attempted suicide. And when authorities asked the artist if he had tried to kill himself, he said, "I believe so," and, curiously, asked them not to accuse anyone else of the crime.

Finally, there was an account in a French medical journal from a man who was a teenager when Van Gogh lived in Auvers. He claimed that he and his brother, who visited the town during the summer, relentlessly taunted the artist, played pranks on him and generally made his life miserable. He also confessed that he was the original recipient of the pistol Van Gogh supposedly killed himself with (it was lent to him by the Ravoux innkeeper), but that Van Gogh had taken it from him. It's far more likely, Naifeh and Smith write, that the boys accidentally shot Van Gogh, and never revealed the truth out of shame. This would corroborate rumors that circulated in Auvers for decades after the artist's death.

If the revisionist story is true, why was Van Gogh so willing to cover up the crime? Because, Steven Naifeh says, Van Gogh felt like a financial burden to his brother Theo, and was prone to misery anyway. The way Van Gogh saw it, "these kids had basically done him the favor of shooting him."

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Filed by Benjamin Hart  |