The life and death of Vincent van Gogh

New revelations about Vincent van Gogh's death suggest that the troubled Dutch painter may not have killed himself after all

His paintings are among the most adored in the world, and the story of his life and death is legendary: Vincent van Gogh was a troubled genius who killed himself. But while van Gogh was no doubt plagued by physical and mental illness, the authors of a new biography say their exhaustive forensic investigation suggests he may not have taken his own life. In this two-part piece, Morley Safer travels to France to retrace van Gogh's final steps - and explore the authors' detective work firsthand.


The following script is from "The Life and Death of Vincent van Gogh" which aired on Oct. 16, 2011.

Tonight we offer a rare visual treat: a look into the life and death of that troubled giant of a painter, Vincent van Gogh.

The bare outline of his life: unappreciated Dutch genius who in a fit of madness cut off his ear and later killed himself.

"60 Minutes Overtime": Virtual Van Gogh
Join Morley Safer for a virtual journey through the paintings of Vincent van Gogh

Now there's a new biography that challenges a crucial part of the van Gogh legend. A 10 year forensic investigation by two Pulitzer Prize-winning authors. If their detective work is right, it may well upend art history.

Their story rambles from van Gogh's birthplace in Holland to Paris, rural France, and to South Carolina. Much of our report is magnificently illustrated by the artist himself.

Here - outside the village of Auvers in the French countryside he loved, on the very edge of the wheat fields he painted so vividly - here, lies Vincent van Gogh. Alongside his devoted brother, Theo.

Morley Safer: No soaring memorials. It's just these simple headstones.

Steven Naifeh: Yeah, it couldn't be more moving knowing that Vincent spent most of his adult life wanting to be with Theo. And to have them spend eternity lying next to each other is seriously touching.

As we talked to co-author Steven Naifeh, a steady stream of pilgrims made their way through the fields to pay their respects at Vincent's grave. Tens of thousands of them come every year.

Naifeh: Japanese visitors actually bring the ashes of their ancestors to pour on the grave of the painter of "Starry Night." Russian visitors bring vodka to pour on the grave.

These South Koreans brought music -

[Visitor with iPhone: "On that starry, starry night you took your life..."]

Don Mclean's famous anthem to Vincent: an artist largely ignored in his lifetime, even ridiculed by the art establishment. Whose paintings are now valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars and command center stage at the great museums of the world.

Naifeh: The colors are beautiful and they're bright and they're cheerful. And if it's a bowl of flowers, it's an exuberant bowl of irises or roses. If it's a landscape, it's all the beauty of the natural world washing over you. You don't have to have a degree in art history to understand that message.

At the Musee d'Orsay in Paris - we talked of art and madness. Sitting by one of van Gogh's iconic self-portraits, painted in 1889 at Saint Paul, a clinic for the insane in Saint Remy, where he had himself committed for a year. Some other masterworks done at Saint Remy: irises. Cypresses. And "Starry Night."

Naifeh: Whether it's "Starry Night," with all that swirling sky, or the swirling brushstrokes in this painting, there are people who have said that this was a depiction of the craziness emanating from his mind. I don't think he's trying that at all. These beautiful, exquisitely colored blue brush strokes are really creating a pattern of unity and harmony and beauty.

Within the madness, there was genius.

Naifeh: Vincent was enormously proud that he painted this entire painting in less than an hour. About 45 minutes.

He worked so quickly that in nine years, he turned out more than a thousand paintings and another thousand drawings.

Naifeh: These are not just crazy works of art by a crazy painter. They are intentional masterpieces by somebody who knew exactly what they're doing.

For ten years, Steve Naifeh and his partner Greg Smith - who's recovering from cancer surgery - peered into every dark corner of Vincent van Gogh's life. He was laughed out of art school. Couldn't hold a job. And even tried being a minister, like his father, with disastrous results.

David Browning is the producer.

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