The exact location where Dutch master Vincent van Gogh painted his last work has been pinpointed after being hidden in plain view for 130 years, among a tangle of roots next to a rural lane near Paris. Experts say the discovery sheds new light on the anguished painter’s mental state on the day he is widely believed to have fatally shot himself.
Dutch researcher Wouter van der Veen realised the scene depicted in the troubled artist’s final work, Tree Roots, was visible on a faded picture postcard featuring a man standing next to a bicycle on a back street of the village of Auvers-sur-Oise, 21 miles north of Paris.
Van Gogh spent the last weeks of his life in the village and completed dozens of paintings there. According to the museum’s version of the master’s life, after working on Tree Roots the artist walked into a nearby field of wheat later in the day and shot himself in the chest with a pistol. He died two days later on July 29, 1890, aged 37. Two American authors cast doubt on the theory in 2011, suggesting the artist was shot by two teenage boys.
Mr van der Veen believes the museum’s version of events and agrees his new discovery shows that van Gogh had his wits about him and was methodical in his thinking before he pulled the trigger to kill himself. “So the final steps were also something he carefully thought about,” he said. “So it was a lucid decision. It was not a fit of madness.”
Even if many art lovers are quick to identify Wheatfield with Crows as Vincent van Gogh’s last painting — from the darkening storm clouds visible on the horizon to the staccato brushstrokes of the painting’s eponymous birds, the scene screams tragedy —, a letter written by the Post-Impressionist that dates the work’s creation closer to July 10, 1890, a full two-and-a-half weeks before he committed suicide seems to contradict this attribution.
In some ways, Three Roots appears to function as a real goodbye. Intepreting the message of the work, art historian Louis van Tilborgh suggests it’s van Gogh’s way of saying: “I have lived, just like those tree roots. I’ve done my best, I’ve struggled with life, I’ve grown, had setbacks and now is the time it ends. I am falling.”