Was Vincent Van Gogh murdered?

A teenage bully, a troubled artist, wealth, power, and a conspiracy of silence have created the myth of Van Gogh’s suicide.
Farm near Auvers, 1890, Vincent Van Gogh, courtesy of the Tate

I stood for a moment catching my breath in Saranac Lake’s lovely old Beaux-ArtsTown Hall. A man sidled up, watching carefully to be sure we were utterly alone within the hubbub. He was reacting to last Thursday’s post.

“It’s been proven conclusively that Vincent Van Gogh was murdered,” he whispered.
Van Gogh’s suicide is legendary, so when biographers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith questioned it in their 2012 biography, they were met with furious criticism. Some of their arguments don’t convince me. He left no note; not all suicides do. And anyone who’s had the misfortune to know a suicide knows that they can be simultaneously planning for the future and for their final exit.
The Church in Auvers-sur-Oise, View from the Chevet, 1890, Vincent Van Gogh, courtesy Musée d’Orsay
Other parts of their argument are more compelling. Shooting oneself in the gut is a painful and unlikely way to top oneself. Equally unlikely is staggering home over a mile of countryside to seek help.
If not Van Gogh himself, then who? Naifeh and Smith drew the bead on one René Secrétan, the 16-year-old son of a Paris pharmacist. He was a rich, privileged bully. Obsessed with Wild Bill Cody, he wandered around Auvers dressed in fringed buckskin, a cowboy hat and chaps, twirling a decrepit pistol. (And his neighbors called Van Gogh crazy.)
René cozied up to Van Gogh. He modelled for the artist, shared his porn stash and paid for drinks. He and his friends let the artist listen as they consorted with ‘dancing girls’. At the same time, René taunted and tormented Van Gogh.
The Road Menders, 1889, Vincent Van Gogh, courtesy the Phillips Collection
Van Gogh was shot on the road to the Secrétan villa, using René’s pistol. (“It worked when it wanted,” René joked.) Why wasn’t it investigated as a murder? Secrétan was the child of wealthy summer people, while Van Gogh was a dodgy weirdo. But he was also starting to be recognized as a painter. The suicide story was a neat cap on his legend, helping to create careers and drive up prices for his paintings.
Naifeh and Smith hired noted forensic expert Dr. Vincent Di Maioto analyze the records. They published the results in Vanity Fair.
Auvers Town Hall on 14 July 1890 (Bastille Day), Vincent Van Gogh, private collection. This was painted fifteen days before his death.
“It is my opinion that, in all medical probability, the wound incurred by Van Gogh was not self-inflicted. In other words, he did not shoot himself,” Di Maio wrote. As mystery fans might have expected, the gun was in the wrong hand.
The evidence for Secrétan’s guilt is there. But, as a curator at the Van Gogh museum wrote to Naifeh and Smith, “I think it would be like Vincent to protect the boys and take the ‘accident’ as an unexpected way out of his burdened life. But I think the biggest problem you’ll find after publishing your theory is that the suicide is more or less printed in the brains of past and present generations and has become a sort of self-evident truth. Vincent’s suicide has become the grand finale of the story of the martyr for art, it’s his crown of thorns.”

Best Buds

The carousel at Saranac Lake is a community work of art, and part of the town’s renaissance.
Best Buds, 11X14, Carol L. Douglas. I tried to recapture that kaleidoscope feeling of riding on a carousel as a child.
Serendipity is a beautiful thing. If I hadn’t stopped at Saranac Lake Artworks to collect a 5×7 canvas for the silent auction, I’d have painted from Route 3 looking down on the village. Instead, I decided to stop by and see the carousel, since I was downtown anyway. I’d heard it features local animals. I thought that I might like to bring my grandkids up someday. Instead, I found inspiration for a very happy painting.
The Adirondack Carousel, courtesy of AdirondackCarousel.org.
Saranac Lake is on the upswing these days, with the newly-renovated Hotel Saranac and a $10 million economic development grant from the state. But the carousel is also part of this trend, very popular among locals and visitors. It’s a story of how art helps transform communities.

Local woodcarver Karen Loffler read about a tiny Northwestern children’s carousel fitted with four woodland animals and filed the thought away. During a visit to the Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum in North Tonawanda, it sprang back again, but this time in the form of a classic American carousel from the last century.
Sandra Hildreth has to tell me why my buddy has colored teeth.
“I just thought, why can’t we build one in Saranac Lake?” she toldthe Syracuse Post-Standard. Well, lots of people have such big ideas; few can muster others to get it done.
In 2001, Karen met with a group of local residents, who promptly formed a non-profit board to bring the idea forward. It took twelve years, countless volunteer hours, and $1.3 million in fundraising. In 2006, the Village of Saranac Lake donated land for the carousel’s home at William Morris Park. Ground was broken in 2011, and it officially opened in 2012. It’s a 3600-square foot space that includes the carousel, a gallery, workshop, store and classroom. There’s a playground outside in the park.
Raccoon and skunk are fellow banditos. The animals are often paired in delightful ways.
The result is indistinguishable in craftsmanship from the great carousels once produced in North Tonawanda. Yet it’s distinctly local, and clearly beloved by children. Many of them stopped by to see what I was doing. “Look, Mom! She’s painting John Deer!” they exclaimed.
A very red squirrel, bald eagle, and a bouncing fox.
The pavilion has 24 handcrafted wildlife animals, eighteen of which are on duty at any one time. Do I have a favorite? How could I, when they’re all so perfect? (You can see them here.) I think the black bear, decked out in the colors of the Hudson’s Bay Company point blanket, captured my attention first. Later, I read that it had been painted by my pal Sandra Hildreth. But each animal has its particular charms—except maybe the black fly.
A loon with a lily-pad saddle.
There’s a wheelchair accessible ride in the form of a Chris Craft boat. The overhead scenes of Saranac Lake were painted by local artists, as were the floral medallions. A local blacksmith made the weathervane, and a local carpenter built the ticket counter. The building was painted and stained by volunteers. The result is distinctly local, happy, and very Adirondack.
Bunny is beautiful, but Porcupineoh, my!
The ride never stops in the same place, so I was better off painting it while it turned. I’ve painted a ride in motion once before, a Tilt-a-Whirlat Seabreeze Amusement Park in Rochester, NY. There is a rhythm of looking that works for a constantly-revolving object. Of course, after several hours of this, my head was spinning.
The girl is a complete invention, vaguely reminiscent of a kid I know in Maine named Meredith Lewis. I debated on the title for quite a while, finally settling on Best Buds. Even if my girl is riding the otter, her heart belongs to John Deer.

How long did Van Gogh take to complete a painting?

The modern plein air movement is only about 30 years old. How is it changing art?
Not nearly finished…36X24.

I worked on one painting all day yesterday, carefully, methodically and in a focused manner. The Adirondacks are in an unstable weather phase, so I was forced off my dock three times by electrical storms. Still, I spent a solid six hours on this one painting. I expect it will take that much again to finish—if I get that time without another storm.

This is a new approach for me. I’m working bigger, slower, and more deliberately. Rushing to make many small works sometimes like writing postcards. The difference makes me wonder how plein air events shape the way we work.
Rocky, for Cape Elizabeth Land Trust, took me 2.5 days to finish.
It’s easy to forget how new modern plein air culture is. In 1985, painter Denise Burns formed Plein-Air Painters of America (PAPA). The next year, her group started an annual exhibition on Santa Catalina Island. The discipline has exploded in popularity with both artists and collectors. Plein air painting is accessible and comprehensible. The Art Establishment may look down on it, but the typical punter loves it.
Today there are hundreds of these events nationwide. There are also nomads whose profession is to participate in them. But these events are very different from getting together with your pals at the town park. For example, I never would have forced my work through a line of storm squalls if I were at home. I could return when the light matched my start, rather than struggling to finish in sub-optimal conditions. In fact, I could work an hour a day for a week on one painting, if I wanted to. None of these options are available for the event painter. We must work fast.
Towering Elms, for Castine Plein Air, only took me half a day.
Festival deadlines give rise to a fast landscape style as inexorably as the Internet has given rise to the 500-word blog post. 
According to the Van Gogh Museum, Vincent Van Gogh “put a great deal of preparation into The Potato Eaters, his first large figure study, working on dozens of preparatory studies. The final painting took ‘many days’ to complete, spread over a longer period of time. However, during the last two months of his life in Auvers-sur-Oise, Vincent completed a painting every day.”
Clearly, that kind of pace can drive you nuts.
Dry Wash, for Santa Fe Plein Air, took the better part of a day.
As a youth, John Constable was a dedicated rambler, sketching in the Suffolk and Essex countryside. These scenes, he said, “made me a painter, and I am grateful.” But this was a low-brow form of education for the time, and the art establishment suggested he not give up his day job. Constable always maintained a strict division between his loose field sketches and his finished paintings.
Paul Cézanne, of course, didn’t have a car to dump his gear into and go. Instead, he painted Mont Sainte-Victoire more than eighty times, from various vantage points. Most frequently, he worked from what is now known as the Terrain des Peintres. It was close to his studio. 
Tom Thomson was transformed into a landscape painter through his intimate relationship with Algonquin Park. His patron, Dr. James MacCallum, said that Thomson’s paintings “made me feel that the North had gripped Thomson as it had gripped me since I was eleven when I first sailed and paddled through its silent places.”
The modern plein airpainter doesn’t generally develop that deep relationship with a particular place. On the other hand, we are forced to paint very fast, and that often results in a different kind of energy and verve. And it’s always fresh. We, like our society, are constantly on the move. That’s making a new kind of art.

Reality show

The plein air circuit is full of intrigue and drama, but it’s with Mother Nature, not each other.
Green on green at the VIC, 12X9, Carol L. Douglas. I’m sorry about the terrible lighting in today’s photos.

Chrissy Pahuckithinks there should be a reality show about the plein air circuit. I don’t know that we could gin up enough conflict, although there’s always drama. Sure, John Slivjak is occasionally seen with a beautiful blonde, but everyone knows that’s his wife.

We do our real fighting with Mother Nature. There doesn’t seem to be much energy left for personal conflict. Even though we’re directly competing for prizes and sales, there’s no kneecappingin our sport.
According to contemporary media culture, Lisa BurgerLentz and I should not be friends. She’s liberal and gay, while I’m conservative and evangelical. However, we each have a kid in college, are suffering the same milestone birthday this year, and can’t remember where we put anything. Our inner commonality outweighs our outer differences. I think this is true for most Americans. We may argue on Facebook, but in person, we like each other. The widening gyreis assigned to us by others.
Boreal Life Trail at the VIC, 16X12, Carol L. Douglas.
Lisa and I ran into each other in the parking lot of the Paul Smith’s College VIC. The Adirondack Plein Air Festivalsets aside one day for us to concentrate on painting here, and I’m always eager. The Boreal Life Trail loops through a fen, which is a bog with a stream. It’s lined with tamarack and black spruce. There are orchids, carnivorous plants, and all manner of other strange and wonderful plants. It’s very Arctic in character, which is why it’s one of my favorite places on earth.
We were interviewed there by Todd Moe of North Country Public Radio. He initiated no reality-show skirmishes, concentrating on why we were there instead. The interview airs Friday between 8 and 9 AM, on The Eight O’Clock Hour.
“We should have talked in funny accents,” I lamented later.
“I think you did,” said Lisa. I was born in Buffalo, and you could grind glass with my flattened vowels.
One that got away. I was driving past Lake Clear when I saw this.
I intended to head over to the Wilmington Flume after lunch, but got sidetracked before I even left the fen. This part of the trail is forested, but still on a boardwalk. The earth is still very soggy, as I learned after dropping my glasses into the bog.
“Green on green, heartache on heartache,” I sang. Painting under the forest canopy can be a mess waiting to happen. There is no obvious focal point, no value changes, and no color temperature changes. Everything just glows an unearthly green.
A very unfinished nocturne by little ol’ me.
At my age, a 7:30 PM bedtime seems reasonable. Nocturnes always seem to drag for me. Lisa and I set up on opposite sides of Main Street to paint the glowing Hotel Saranac sign. Rumor around town is that they have the sign wired so they can make it appear to have bulbs out. The result reads “Hot Sara.”
It was midnight before I dragged myself up to bed. In the wee hours, an electrical storm moved across Kiwassa Lake. It was too wonderful to ignore, so I watched it. Another day dawns, and this one is starting to brighten. Keep your powder dry, fellow painters. We still have four more days to go.

Travel and travail

A long drive gave me plenty of time to ponder the meaning of success and failure.

Whiteface Makes Its Own Weather, was painted last time I was here, in 2014.
Yesterday a radio host was talking about the late Dallas Cowboys football coach, Tom Landry, and his attitude toward losing. “It’s got a priority, but it’s not number one in my life. This creates for me a certain amount of calmness, even though I’m human enough to suffer when we lose,” Landry said.
I’d just been musing on artists’ reaction to failure. I’m as bad as anyone else about taking it personally. However, like Landry, my career isn’t my highest priority. That helps me regain my equanimity a little faster.
We sometimes think a single-minded focus on painting will make us better artists. If Landry’s career is any indication, that’s not true. In fact, it may hinder our recovery from failure. No matter what your walk in life, it’s never a question of whether you will encounter setbacks or crises. They happen to us all. The question is whether you will have the resilience to recover.
Weather Moving In At Barnum Bog, was painted last time I was here, in 2014.
I had a lot of time to think yesterday, as I was driving from Rockport, ME to Saranac Lake, NY. I had a choice of routes. I could drive cross-lots west, which was the shortest distance. Or I could head south to Manchester, which was the fastest route. The obstacle is Lake Champlain, which was in my way no matter which angle I come from. I chose the coastal route. Every town was a snarl of holiday traffic. The trip took hours longer than I anticipated. I was weary.
If New Hampshire and Vermont were starched and ironed, they’d be at least as big as Texas. They’re mountainous and beautiful and villainously difficult to drive.
At 4 PM I considered just stopping for the night and calling it quits. After all, the Green and White Mountains and the High Peaks of the Adirondacks are all Appalachian uplifts, and they all look more or less the same.
The Au Sable River at Jay, 12X9, was painted last time I was here, in 2014.
On the other hand, the stretch between Middlebury, VT and Lake Champlain is one long flash of brilliant green. Heading west from the Atlantic, it’s the first flat open farmland one sees. Those long fields, so common to the Midwest, don’t happen in the Northeast. Just beyond Lake Champlain, the  High Peaks of the Adirondacks rise again, providing a mountain backdrop to a pastoral scene. Anyone interested in living back of beyond could do worse than to land in Addison County, VT.
Although we were instructed to do a nocturne once the sun set at 8 PM, I was impossibly tired. If one is going to be done, it will be an early-morning painting. The sun rises later here than it does on the Maine Coast.
Judging by this morning, I would have until 6 AM to finish. The Eastern Time Zone is impressively wide along our northern border. It runs from Eastport, ME nearly to Chicago. The difference feels substantial every time I come to New York.  At this rate, the sun must come up around noon in Indianapolis.

How I spent my summer vacation

Janith Mason epitomizes the joy most people feel at painting in Maine. It’s just that kind of place.

Summer slipped past me like road markers on the interstate, perhaps because I’ve driven 7500 miles since June 27. Working sun up to sun down with almost no days off for five weeks is exhausting, but it was deeply rewarding at the same time.

Sunset over the Hudson was painted at Olana.
In early June I drove to the Catskills to join a select group of New York plein air painters at a retreatorganized by Jamie Williams Grossman.  I came home to miss my own opening of God+Man at Aviv! Gallery, because of a health issue—the first time that’s ever happened to me. (Mercifully, I made my student show’s opening the following Sunday afternoon.)
Back in Rochester, the official first day of summer found my class huddled up against a cold wind off Lake Ontario. Since the lake nearly froze solid last winter, that was understandable. In fact, it’s been a cooler-than-average summer here, and our tomatoes are just now thinking of ripening.
I may have missed my own opening in June, but I did make it to my student show. Of course, there was beer.
I was walking in Mt. Hope Cemetery on Independence Day when I saw a young man painting en plein air. Turns out to be an RIT graduate named Zac Retz. He and another young friend joined us one more time before I left for Maine. I hope to see them again.
July found my duo show with Stu Chait, Intersections of Form, Color, Time and Space, closed down by RIT-NTID’s Dyer Gallery. The nude figure paintings might have offended young campus visitors. That’s a gift that keeps on giving, since the paintings had to be packed and moved in a hurry by two young assistants; they’re still in my studio awaiting their final repacking and storage.
My $15 porta-potty turned out to be one of the best investments I’ve ever made.
I couldn’t move them myself because by that time I was living off the grid in Waldoboro, ME. From there I went to one of my favorite events of the year, Castine Plein Air, which was followed by ten days of painting in Camden and Waldoboro.
Evening Reverie, sold, was one of many pieces I painted for Camden Falls Gallery this summer.
Then on to my workshop in Belfast, which was a lovely mix of friends old and new. This year, a number of participants traveled with their families, which lent a wonderful tone to the experience. From there I joined Tarryl Gabel and her intrepid band of women painters in Saranac Lake to participate in Sandra Hildreth’s Adirondack Plein Air Festival.
By the time you read this, I will be on the road again. This time it’s not work; I’m going to see family. I’m really looking forward to being back in Rochester teaching again, and starting on a new body of studio work.

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The night before exams

Sunset over Saranac Lake, by little ol’ me.

This week I’ve lived with a group of women painters in a house overlooking Lake Flower in Saranac Lake. I’ve known two of them for a long time, but the rest were strangers to me before the week began. We are strangers no more; there’s intimacy in living in an all-girls’ dorm, which is probably lost in a world which no longer segregates college students by gender.

Crista Pisano touching up her work the night before the show.
Not that we were living in the others’ pockets: we crept off silently in the early morning to paint where and when we wanted, meeting up for dinner. Occasionally we painted together, but most of the time we went our own ways.

My roomies, from left: Mira Fink, Crista Pisano, me, Marlene Wiedenbaum, Laura Bianco, Kari Ganoung Ruiz, Tarryl Gabel.
The sun wasn’t in evidence much last week, so when it made its appearance on Saturday we all made the most of it. When it finally dropped, we reluctantly set down our brushes and went back inside for the serious work of framing, signing  and titling work. This included a group critique session, targeted toward culling the work for jurying. Crista Pisano offered a great insight: work for a jury ought to be consistent, so we worked to make our groupings-of-three coherent small shows in their own right.

I painted with other pals as well. Here with Sandra Hildreth, left, and Carol Thiel, right.
Inevitably, someone made the suggestion that a work would look better in a different frame. The business of swapping framing materials began. It was like being in school again, except that we were swapping art supplies rather than makeup.

Among my favorite places to paint was the bog at Paul Smiths College Visitor Interpretive Center, where Pitcher Plants were much in evidence.

Our house made a strong showing: Crista Pisano took Best in Show (for the second time in three years) and Tarryl Gabel took the Saranac Lake Cover Art Award.

And then this morning we demonstrated that seven women can clean a house in no time flat.

Message me if you want information about next year’s Maine workshops. Information about this year’s programs is available here.

Me and my big mouth

Front Porch View, 5X7, oil on canvasboard.
The residents of the asylum all got up at 6 AM yesterday to paint our 5X7 donation paintings. Four of us painted from the same location—our porch, because it was raining. My painting was finished and handed in by 8 AM. Sadly, that was the high point of my day.
Marlene Wiedenbaum painting from the front porch.
I’ve said before that rain is the great equalizer; it falls on the just and the unjust alike. That was true yesterday, and it slowed us all down. I abandoned my painting of Main Street after 2 hours, intending to return to it after lunch. Instead, I went out to paint Whiteface Mountain—a scene I said was idiot proof. Whoops. As soon as I had my painting composed and blocked in, a cloud rolled down the mountain, obscuring it.
Unfinished painting of Whiteface Mountain. I’ll finish the mountain when it stops having a hissy fit and hiding behind the clouds.
Not only did it bring rain, it also brought No-See-Ums out. And three visitors, one of whom spent almost an hour with us asking questions about what we were doing.
Whiteface hiding behind its clouds.
There was no finishing this composition without the top of Whiteface showing, since all the weight would then fall to the bottom of the page. Still, both are salvageable. I’ll finish them tomorrow.
Painting along Route 86 (photo courtesy of Laura Bianco).

Message me if you want information about next year’s Maine workshops. Information about this year’s programs is available here.

Buckling down to do some work

Mountain Farm in Evening, 8X6, oil on canvas
Yesterday, I spent several hours hiking at the 3,000-acre Paul Smith’s College Visitor Interpretive Center (VIC). We’re expected to paint there tomorrow, and I’ve never been there. Toting up the various trails I followed, I figure I hiked about five miles, which is my normal daily walk at home. Hiking trails, however, are different from paved urban sidewalks, particularly in a mountainous area.
Mira Fink working on her watercolor at the VIC.
There is an iconic view of a rock outcropping in the VIC’s Heron Marsh which is lovely, but it is perhaps too perfect for my taste. Brian McDonnell, VIC facilities manager, warned me that it would be swarming with artists on Friday. A lovely view on the far end of the marsh caught my eye, but it’s a mile and a half from the parking lot. There is a spruce swamp that is simply magical, but I’m not sure how I’ll convert that to something intelligible. I won’t choose now; I think it would be better to let the views percolate in my mind’s eye before committing them to canvas.
Approaching the spruce swamp at the VIC.
I also went back to two sites that I visited on Tuesday, because I wasn’t certain they would make good compositions. I did greyscale drawings to satisfy myself that painting them would work.
A panoramic view of the High Peaks can only work if there’s foreground interest. I’ll tidy up the trees and I think it will work.
At about 5 PM, I went to town to have my boards stamped. From there, Crista Pisano, Laura Bianco and I went to Gabriels, NY to paint farms in the waning evening light. It was the first time I’ve actually flexed my brush hand in a week, and it felt good.
I’m still not convinced about these river rocks at Jay, but painting should be all about taking risks, right?
Message me if you want information about next year’s Maine workshops. Information about this year’s programs is available here.

Dépaysement, redux

Still life composed by Tarryl for my amusement. My fellow painters here are all down-staters.
A few weeks ago I wrote about dépaysement, the sense of disorientation one has on arriving in a strange place. I have to confess I’m feeling that again. I’m in Saranac Lake, NY, for the Sixth Annual Adirondack Plein Air Festival, and it’s 38° F. this morning. Yes, you read that right. I’m staying with a group of artists led by Tarryl Gabel, who is a veteran of painting up here in August. As I’m writing this, she’s sliding jeans over her leggings, preparing to hie off to Paul Smiths. 

My bedroom is an old-fashioned sleeping porch.
Coming from the Maine coast as I did, I have sleeveless shirts, capris, and sandals with me. “But you’re a northern girl,” Tarryl protested, implying that I should have known better. This is true, but Rochester and Buffalo have warm autumns, courtesy of the Great Lakes, which act as massive heat exchangers. Having said that, 38° F. on an August morning is cold for anywhere in New York State.
Crista cooks like I do, meaning she put herself in charge of snack food.
I’ve known Tarryl for a long time but not that well. She and Crista Pisano and I have done Rye’s Painters on Location together for many years. They’re the only people I expect to know in this temporary artists’ commune.
The essence of the Adirondacks: a porch overlooking the lake.
Our home-away-from-home is a ramshackle turn-of-the-century pile along Flower Lake. The view is lovely and the furniture is vintage. After the solitude of my off-the-grid cabin and the luxury of the Fireside Inn, this is a third kind of living: it has the character of a family camp in the mountains, complete with deferred maintenance. But as I keep saying, “I don’t have to fix it.”
Tarryl’s painting hat. It’s iconic.
Message me if you want information about next year’s Maine workshops. Information about this year’s programs is available here.