Contumacious is not too strong a word to describe biographers who subtitle their tome, eight hundred and fifty plus pages though it may be, "The Life" as do authors Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith: Van Gogh: The Life. "The Life" suggests that here the readers finally have the definitive version, the last word—everything we ever wanted to know about what was surely one of the most tortured of lives. Clearly that is not the case. For all its length and detail, it postulates a controversial theory of the artist's death which is sure to raise at least some hackles and generate some biographical blowback. "Van Gogh: A Life" might have been a more appropriate title.
Viewers of 60 Minutes are most likely acquainted with the authors' theory about Van Gogh's death. Long thought to have been a suicide, Naifeh and Smith treat that idea as little more than a tall tale made legend by Irving
Stone's novelization and the film that followed, Lust for Life, and a legend filled with holes. While their arguments are presented with conviction, they are arguments, even though they have been around for some time, by no means are accepted by all Van Gogh scholars.
Based primarily on a prior scholar's 1956 interviews with Rene Secretan, an octogenarian who came forward near the end of his life to explain his own role in the painter's 1890 death in what he claimed was an attempt to correct some of the romantic liberties taken in the film. Although Secretan doesn't seem to have confessed to anything other than harassing the painter, whom he and his young friends considered nothing short of a crazy man, he did have access to the kind of gun that people thought must have been the weapon Van Gogh used, a weapon that was never found. Add to this a lot of circumstantial evidence including the facts that none of the painter's equipment was found at the site where he supposedly shot himself, the peculiarity of trying to commit suicide by shooting yourself in the stomach, Van Gogh's somewhat less than adequate statements about what he did, as well as a number of other tidbits, and you've got the makings of a case.