Vincent van Gogh had a remarkably large skull. Doctor Paul Gachet came to this conclusion when, on 9 June 1905, he stood with the artist’s skull in the cemetery of Auvers-sur-Oise. The doctor and amateur phrenologist had befriended Van Gogh fifteen years earlier. He had traveled to Auvers on the advice of his brother Theo, precisely because of the doctor. Gachet, a great art lover, could keep an eye on Van Gogh’s fragile mental health. That seemed necessary, because the artist had just spent a year in an institution in the south of France.
In Auvers, an artists’ village north of Paris, things went wrong again: after seventy extremely productive days, Van Gogh died in his boarding house, two days after shooting himself in the chest with a revolver.
On that summer day fifteen years later, Van Gogh’s remains would be reburied in the Auvers cemetery. Doctor Gachet attended the dig in the company of his son Paul junior and Jo Bonger, the artist’s sister-in-law.
In his book published earlier this month Van Gogh’s Finale. Auvers and the Artist’s Rise to Fame Martin Bailey gives an extensive and eerily detailed account of the dig. The British Van Gogh specialist bases this on notes that have been handed down by Gachet junior.
The roots of a conifer had grown around Van Gogh’s chest fifteen years later
A gravedigger uncovered Van Gogh’s nearly decayed coffin. The roots of a tree of life placed on the grave, a species of conifer, had grown around Van Gogh’s chest after a decade and a half, “penetrating the cavities between the ribs.” When the skull was excavated, the doctor examined the cheekbones and the arch at the level of the eyebrows. After marveling aloud at its size, he handed the skull to his son. He carefully placed it at the head of a new coffin that was waiting. Gachet junior: „Unconsciously we played out the scene of the gravediggers Hamlet.”
Bailey then speculates as to whether the bullet fired by Van Gogh was recovered during the dig. His theory is that Dr. Gachet, a former military surgeon, removed the bullet 15 years earlier, just before the funeral. Bailey then elaborates on the tree of life on Van Gogh’s original grave. It seems plausible to him that it has been replanted in accordance with local tradition and has now grown into the large, thriving tree at the former village house of Gachet.
Martin Bailey is a tireless Van Gogh specialist. Van Gogh’s Finale is his fourth book about the Brabant artist, and as a correspondent of The Art Newspaper does he keep the blog ‘Adventures with Van Gogh’ with news almost every week.
Van Gogh’s Finale is constructed in three parts. Bailey describes the time Van Gogh spent in Auvers and the seventy paintings he made in as many days. The second part is about Van Gogh’s death. In it, Bailey challenges the theory of American biographers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, who posited in 2011 that Van Gogh did not pull the trigger himself, but that his death was the fatal result of bullying by a few schoolboys that got out of hand. A theory that was not very popular anymore.
The final part is the most lively. In it, Bailey describes how Van Gogh grew from an artist who sold only one painting in his lifetime to become one of the most popular, counterfeit and most expensive painters in the world. Particularly fascinating is the description of Paul Gachet junior, a hermit who inherited his father’s unlikely collection: in addition to 26 paintings by Van Gogh, fifty works by Cézanne and Pisarro, as well as canvases by Monet, Renoir and Sisley.
According to Bailey, young Gachet slept with a gun on his nightstand and he and his sister lived off the occasional art sale. Villagers sometimes saw the doctor’s son leave for Paris with a Van Gogh or Cézannen under his arm. He traveled to art dealers in the city by metro. Gachet donated his most beautiful Van Goghs, eight in total, including a portrait of his father, to the French state while still alive. They now hang in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
Van Gogh is one of the few stars where small news items quickly become ‘breaking news’, including international press conferences and book publications. One of the driving forces behind that message flow is Martin Bailey.
A book full of eccentricities and sometimes curious hypotheses collected by him will not be suitable for every Van Gogh enthusiast. Bailey’s obsession with the sunflower painter is too limitless for that.
When the rusted nineteenth-century revolver that a farmer in Auvers found in 1960 while plowing his land turned up at an auction in Paris in 2019, Bailey traveled straight to the viewing days. The possible revolver with which Van Gogh wanted to kill himself! In the introduction to his book, he calls the moment he held the firearm in his hand “my most memorable moment in my exploration of Vincent’s last days”.
And who will join Bailey’s plea for DNA testing of the draft letter that Van Gogh had with him when he shot himself in the chest? That letter contains a few stains that the Brit hopes are blood stains that “could possibly tell us more about Van Gogh’s medical condition and whether there was a genetic abnormality”.
Bailey’s morbid interest is hardly inferior to Dr. Gachet’s. He had a collection of plaster casts of the heads of guillotined murderers at home. Bailey describes the collection in detail and even shows one of the heads in his book.
Van Gogh’s Finale. Auvers and the Artist’s Rise to Fame, by Martin Bailey. ed. Frances Lincoln, 240 pages, €36.99