By Jean West
VINCENT van Gogh’s friendship with a Scottish “doppelganger” provides powerful new evidence the artist died as a result of suicide rather than by accident, according to experts.
A new film, Loving Vincent, explores whether the gunshot that killed the painter was deliberate or a freak accident.
But experts say details of van Gogh’s friendship with Glasgow art dealer Alexander Reid point strongly towards suicide. In particular, they say van Goch and Alexander had earlier formed a suicide pact.
Alexander Reid was an influential Glasgow art dealer born in 1854. In the 1880s he left to work at Paris art house Boussod & Valadon.
There he worked with Theo van Gogh, brother of Vincent and he became friends with the brothers. Reid lived with the van Gogh’s in Rue Lepic in Paris for six months in 1886 as he explored the Bohemian world of impressionism and avant-garde art.
He and Vincent looked so similar that a portrait that van Gogh painted of Reid was mistaken for a self-portrait by art curator JB De La Failleand they were later dubbed ‘twins’.
When they met Reid was suffering a from a major business disappointment and dark depression and while opening up about it, he and van Gogh made a suicide pact.
Now art figures have said that the pact is significant when talking about van Gogh’s death and that it may have encouraged van Gogh to take his own life two years later.
Dr Frances Fowle, senior curator at the National Galleries of Scotland, whose book ‘Van Gogh’s Twin: The Scottish Art Dealer Alexander Reid’ describes the pact, says the story remains relatively unknown despite being just as ‘dramatic as events in the new film’.
She added: “On the day it happened, Reid was feeling melancholy. A relationship with American agent, Mary Bacon Martin, who was trying to promote the work of James Abbott McNeill Whistler, had recently ended. The dealer was in some significant career difficulty.
“Vincent was also going through a very dark time. Having been sacked from a job as a parson and failing in art dealership himself, he was encouraged to paint by his brother, Theo. But it was a difficult world.
“Vincent gallantly suggested suicide – together. Reid, like a shrewd Scot, at once replied, ‘Topping, but I have sisters in Scotland and don’t want to put them to needless trouble and worry – so if we wait until nightfall it will be all right.’
“Thus taken by the sentiments, Vincent ‘fell to it’, Reid went out to ‘make arrangements’ which resulted in him spending his last francs in getting as far away as Paris permitted, sending for his things and giving the suicide the go by.”
After the failed pact, Dr Fowle, reader in art history at the University of Edinburgh, said Reid moved to trade a few blocks away from the Van Goghs.
The brothers accused Reid of selling works at inflated prices and making it difficult for them to buy works as a consequence.
According to Dr Fowle there was another episode when Vincent is understood to have threatened Reid with a knife over his supposed interest in his sister.
Van Gogh referred to Reid as “that vulgar dealer”, but shortly before his death he seemed to regret that judgeement, saying: “”How much I think of Reid when I am reading Shakespeare, and how often have I thought of him when I am sicker than I am now.”
Reid is celebrated for championing and bringing work impressionists such as Monet and Manet to Scotland at a time when public opinion was suspicious and outraged.
Philip Hook, Sotheby’s senior director in Impressionist and Modern Art, said of the pact between Reid and van Gogh : “It shows that suicide was on his mind and that he was potentially someone who would commit suicide. It maybe strengthened the idea in him, because it was only two-and-a-half years later that he committed suicide.”
Hook also speculated that had the pair followed through with their arrangement, van Gogh’s legacy would have been significantly damaged as it would have robbed him of the defining period in his career.
“Had they succeeded in their suicide pact it would have had huge consequences. Van Gogh would have been remembered in a very different way.
“This was before he went to the South of France in 1887-88, the absolutely crucial period of his career, when he became what we know as Van Gogh and developed the free-wheeled style and brilliant colouring that came from the sunlight.
“He would have been remembered as a rather minor painter in the orbit of the impressionists”, he added.
The cutting-edge new biopic explores the mystery surrounding the artist’s death at the age of only 37.
It is known that he returned to his lodgings in Auvers Sur Oise, a suburb of Paris, with a gunshot wound to the stomach after an afternoon painting in nearby wheatfields.
Scholars have used material from his letters, time in a mental institution and his own death-bed declaration that it was suicide to explain his demise.
But alternative theories are explored, like that of Pulitzer Prize winning authors Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, who claimed Vincent had been shot, possibly accidentally, by an acquaintance.
Experts at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam have recently dismissed the theory that he was shot by a young boy, after lengthy research into the claim.