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

The following script is from "The Life and Death of Vincent van Gogh" which originally aired on Oct. 16, 2011 and was rebroadcast on July 29, 2012. Morley Safer is the correspondent. David Browning, producer.

Tonight, once again, we offer a rare visual treat: a look into the life and death of that troubled giant of a painter, Vincent van Gogh, whose death occurred 122 years ago tonight.

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

A biography published last year challenged a crucial part of the van Gogh legend. A 10-year forensic investigation by two Pulitzer Prize-winning authors which has upended 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.

Safer: He was a wanderer, a kind of constant pilgrim. And a failure at virtually everything he did.

Smith: Right.

Safer: Failed as a preacher, failed as a son.

Smith: He couldn't find a niche anywhere. Even when he was working for an evangelical church, they found his behavior too weird. And so they just kicked him out.

From childhood, he was haunted by inner demons. Argumentative. Given to strange outbursts. A social misfit.

Smith: He basically is a man who lived to be 37 years old and never really had a friend.

Safer: He was a loner who needed company.

Smith: Desperately. That's exactly right.

Which is why he relished painting portraits. Though many were afraid of him and refused to pose, others agreed.

A shepherd in Provence. Eugen Boch, a poet. Joseph Roulin, a mailman. A fellow patient at the insane asylum. Monsieur Trabuc, the head attendant there.

Naifeh: Of all of his subjects, portraits were definitely his favorite. The reason was really less artistic than it was emotional. And that was out of his loneliness, one of his few ways to connect with people was to paint somebody.

[Smith: There are 150,000 of these cards...]

From their offices in Aiken, South Carolina, Smith and Naifeh used a small army of researchers, translators and computer experts to collect every known fact about the artist. They discovered a remarkable mind. An insatiable reader: Shakespeare, Zola, Dickens, Walt Whitman.

[Smith: This is a letter to his sister Wil that he wrote in 1888...]

An incurable letter writer, who, for all his madness, was fluent in Dutch, French, German and English. In addition to Vincent's letters, the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam gave the authors access to a trove of family correspondence never before published. Anguished letters about Vincent, the stranger in their midst.

Naifeh: Some people will be surprised at just how alienated he was from his family. And even Theo kept a certain distance from him.

It fell on Theo van Gogh - who looked remarkably like his older brother - to support Vincent financially, to be the peacemaker when the grown child, at odds with a hostile world, kept turning up on the family doorstep. Vincent first took up painting at Theo's suggestion, but concentrated on bleak, chilly scenes: winter at the family parsonage. Haggard peasants in abject poverty.

Smith: Vincent used to literally bring the paintings into the family dining room and set them in a chair so that the peasants could attend the family dinner. And that was enormously offensive to the, you know, the family thought he was crazy, literally.

He was, in short, an embarrassment to his father, the austere parson van Gogh, the man of god Vincent had once tried to become.

Safer: Throughout the rest of his life he felt guilt, or somehow responsibility for his father's death. How come?

Naifeh: He just fought constantly with his father. And his father died of a stroke. The constant tension in the household, the family believed, contributed to the father's death. And so the mother never forgave him.

His mother had taught him to draw. Vincent painted her years after she had turned her back on him. "I believe he has always been insane," she wrote. "His suffering and ours has been the result." And yet: he painted her with a forgiving smile, as if art might ease the pain.

Smith: His whole approach to art was the world is an angry and mean place -

Safer: Hostile place.

Smith: Hostile place. And that art, like religion, was there to console those who were heartbroken by life. And that was first and foremost him. He was first in line.

What exactly was tormenting Vincent van Gogh? It was that single, gruesome act that offers a clue: the ear incident. In 1888, Vincent found what he thought was a kindred spirit: fellow painter Paul Gauguin. For two months, they shared the famous yellow house in the southern French city of Arles.

Safer: Why did Gauguin join with him in the first place?

Naifeh: Money. Very simply money. Theo was basically buying him as company for Vincent.

Van Gogh painted Gauguin at work. Gauguin painted van Gogh. But found Vincent's craziness impossible to live with. They argued bitterly and Gauguin left. What followed was a major psychotic episode.

Safer: Did he cut the entire ear off or the lobe or what?

Naifeh: There was some dispute about that. It appears that he cut off more than the lobe, but less than the entire ear. And it was a disturbing sight, even after it healed.

In the hospital, Vincent was treated by a young intern named Felix Rey, who then spent months trying to diagnose his mental condition. Though doctors have debated the matter for a century, Naifeh and Smith believe Doctor Rey's diagnosis was the right one. Temporal lobe epilepsy. Which can induce a kind of horrible electric storm in the brain.

Smith: Temporal lobe epilepsy was a brand new disease in 1890 -

Naifeh: Or at least diagnosed for the first time -

Smith: Yeah, just been diagnosed. Since then it's been better understood, they know more about it.

Safer: And it's treatable now.

Smith: And it's treatable. And we took what his doctors knew about it and laid that over what is now known about it. And so it, the fit was perfect.

The seizures could be ignited by something as benign as sunlight streaming through the trees. By stress, by rejection, by strange dreams: his constant companions. He heard voices, saw ghosts, accusing him of awful crimes.

Naifeh: A person with the disease feels it coming on. And there's terrible dread that comes with it. During the attack you lose consciousness. You don't know what happens to you. And each new attack makes the next one more likely. So it is an absolutely terrifying disease.

It was a madness foretold in many ways. There was epilepsy on both sides of Vincent's family. And he was marked from childhood with tell-tale symptoms: angry, suspicious, a child who'd run away from home in a thunderstorm.

Naifeh: The syndrome of behaviors that are exhibited by people with that disease reads like a road map to Vincent's personality.

The map of his madness - according to the accepted theory - ultimately led Vincent to the wheat fields one summer evening. There, armed with a pistol, he attempted suicide. Gravely wounded, he managed somehow to get himself down the hill and up the stairs to his tiny rented room - this room - in the town of Auvers. Where, 30 hours later, he died, with Theo at his side. That's the story that's endured for 122 years.

Smith: The first inkling that I got that there was something wrong was when I really started to look at the existing story. There were so many things about it that were wrong, and didn't make sense.

Their database kept yielding inconsistencies, contradictions and unexplained questions about the official story. For instance:

Naifeh: How did he get the gun? Everybody in Auvers knew that he had been in an insane asylum. Pistols were a rarity in rural France. Who would've given Vincent van Gogh a gun?

When we return: what the authors think is the true story of van Gogh's death.

In 1956, the movie "Lust for Life" was released. That biography of Vincent van Gogh more than anything else etched into history the suicide in the wheat field version of how he died. It starred Kirk Douglas as the troubled artist.

Troubled in so many ways: bedeviled by hallucinations, depressed, probably alcoholic, suffering from that curse of the 19th century, syphilis. A lonely figure to be avoided or mocked.

But in the spring of 1890, at age 37, he found a place he thought would bring him peace: the French village of Auvers, where he would die just 70 days after his arrival. The authors of the new van Gogh biography maintain the circumstances of his death were far different from the movie version.

Auvers was just a half hour train ride from Paris. A quiet, bucolic farming town on the banks of the river Oise. The area was a magnet for painters like Cezanne, Pissarro and Corot, giants of modern art.

Naifeh: This was not only a place where the best artists of the era came to paint, because it was so beautiful. For somewhat similar reasons, the wealthy of Paris would come and summer here. It was sort of the Hamptons of the 1890s.

Safer: The smart set.

Naifeh: The smart set came here.

Inspired by his surroundings, van Gogh painted like a man possessed, turning out a picture a day. He painted the medieval church on the hill, looking as though it's about to jump off the canvas. He painted the town hall, decked out for Bastille Day. And just across the street, the Auberge Ravoux, the inn where he lived and took his meals.

Safer: He ate here every day?

Naifeh: He did eat here every day. His only social interaction during the day was in ordering food which is really incredibly sad.

In this picture taken outside the inn the year Vincent died, Gustave Ravoux, the owner, sits at the left. His teenage daughter Adeline stands in the doorway. Key figures in the story of what happened on Sunday, July 27, 1890.

Safer: On that day like most other days, Vincent left the cafe carrying his easel, some canvases and his paint box, ready to begin yet another day of feverish work. And just as the sun was setting, he returned to the cafe: staggering, clutching his stomach, clearly in great pain. Was his injury the result of a botched suicide attempt - as the official history maintains - or had something else happened?

The "Lust for Life" version - with Douglas at his teeth-gnashing best - draws on a story that Adeline Ravoux told many years later: that Vincent had been bothered by crows as he painted, and borrowed a gun from her father to keep them away. But:

Naifeh: He loved birds. The idea that he would feel a need to scare away crows just never made any sense.

Did he have suicide in mind? The painting in the film does seem to carry a dark prophecy: the crows, harbingers of death.

For years, that painting - "Wheatfield with Crows" - was thought to be Vincent's last work, his own visual epitaph. But:

Naifeh: In fact it seems to have been painted about July 10th, which is more than two weeks before he died. And he painted a lot of very happy paintings after that.

In many of his letters, van Gogh did write of considering suicide, but always rejected it, concluding that such an act would be both sinful and immoral. What we only know for sure is that a gun was present on that day and Vincent was shot.

The gun and the painting supplies were never found. And the suicide story presented other problems, beginning with the distance from the wheat fields to the Ravoux Inn, about a mile or more. It would have been a long hike over rough terrain for a badly wounded man.

Naifeh: How did he climb through these vast wheat fields and down the escarpment into town? It's a rather difficult journey, and extremely difficult to imagine that in that physical condition he could have made that trip.

The authors believe he didn't. Their research turned up a story handed down through an Auvers family over the years - of a man who saw Vincent just before the shooting - not in the wheat fields, but here in town on the Rue Boucher, a street of small houses with enclosed farmyards.

Safer: Were there any witnesses or people who heard the shot?

Naifeh: Yes. The woman whose grandfather told her the story said that he heard the gunshot in one of these farmyards and later went back and could find no evidence of what had taken place. But he heard the gunshot take place in the farmyard.

And from here, it would have been easier for Vincent to get back to the Auberger Ravoux.

Safer: He would stagger down the street and then make what, a left turn?

Naifeh: A left turn toward the Auberge.

Safer: And how far is that, roughly?

Naifeh: About half a mile. So it would have been still a struggle, but less of a struggle than climbing down the rough ground of the wheat field.

To Naifeh and Smith, Auvers yielded more contradictions. In this house lived Paul Gachet, a doctor Vincent saw from time to time - and even painted. Doctor Gachet drew this sketch of the artist on his death bed after examining him. He found the bullet was lodged in Vincent's abdomen: a curious way, it would seem, to attempt suicide.

Smith: The doctors told the police that the trajectory of the bullet was from, was at a crazy angle. And that the gun was held at a distance from the body, and even perhaps too far from the body for Vincent to have actually been holding the gun.

Safer: It should be said that there was no, what we would regard today as a forensic investigation.

Smith: No, there was no autopsy and no forensic investigation. Just the Auvers police came to Vincent's door and said, "Did you try to commit suicide?" And he said, "I think I did."

Safer: "I think I did."

Naifeh: "I believe so."

Smith: "I believe so." Yeah, "I believe so."

Naifeh: And then he said, "Don't accuse anybody else." Which is an odd thing to say.

It should be said that much of the evidence is based on personal recollection and rumor. Still, to the writers, an alternate view of Vincent's death was slowly taking shape. Enhanced by this man, the late John Rewald, an eminent art historian. Rewald was in Auvers in the 1930s, when many people with first-hand recollections of the van Gogh affair were still living.

Naifeh: And the rumors that he heard were that Vincent didn't kill himself, that he was shot accidentally by a couple of boys. And that he decided to protect them and play the martyr. That account fits all the known facts.

And there was a smoking gun - of sorts - in an obscure French medical journal. We located a copy at the Frick Art Reference Library in New York. It was a 1956 interview with Rene Secretan, a well-to-do French businessman.

Naifeh: This was a guilt-ridden account of how he and his brother and especially several friends had gotten to know Vincent that summer.

The teenage Secretan brothers were part of the wave of well-heeled Parisians who descended on Auvers each summer. In the interview, Rene Secretan said they bought Vincent drinks at the Ravoux Inn. And teased him and taunted him mercilessly.

Naifeh: They put salt in his coffee and chuckled when he spit it up. They put a snake in his paint box and he almost blacked out.

But Vincent, as always, was desperate for company. And tagged along as the teenagers did what young people do, down by the river.

Naifeh: One of the many ways to taunt him was to kiss and caress their girlfriends in front of him here along the riverbank. And in some cases, they had the girls go over to Vincent and pretend to seduce him. And he felt incredibly uncomfortable -

Safer: It was really tormenting -

Naifeh: He knew that it wasn't genuine. He knew that they were just being put up to this and that they were laughing at him.

Another piece of the puzzle came from the Louvre in Paris, where the authors found this untitled sketch by Vincent. They believe it actually shows Rene Secretan, decked out as Buffalo Bill, whose Wild West show was a major hit in Paris just the year before.

Naifeh: Rene was running around Auvers in a rodeo cowboy hat and a fringed jacket and cowboy boots. And with a gun that he had borrowed from Gustave Ravoux. It turns out the gun had not been loaned to Vincent, but, much more credibly, had been loaned to this 16-year-old kid.

In the 1956 interview, Rene Secretan does make it clear that he got the pistol from Ravoux, the innkeeper. Secretan was never asked if he was directly involved in Vincent's death, carrying that answer to his grave a year later. He did claim that Vincent stole the gun from him and that he and his brother had left Auvers by the time of the shooting. But Naifeh and Smith say that's unlikely.

Safer: So if it wasn't suicide, what does the evidence point to?

Naifeh: What the evidence points to is that this incident took place not in the wheat fields, but in a farmyard on the Rue Boucher. That it involved these two boys. And that it was either an accident or a deliberate act. Was it playing cowboy in some way that went awry? Was it teasing with the gun with Vincent lunging out? It's hard to know what went on at that moment.

But the theory could explain Vincent's remark to the police before he died: "Don't accuse anyone else," he said. And it fits the rumors John Rewald heard long ago:

Naifeh: That a couple of kids had shot Vincent van Gogh and he decided to basically protect them and accept this as the way to die. These kids had basically done him the favor of, of shooting him.

Safer: So he was covering up his own murder?

Naifeh: Covering up his own murder.

However he died, Vincent may have welcomed death. He felt guilty over his dependence on his younger brother Theo, who was in failing health himself.

Naifeh: He knew that he was a burden to Theo. So there's something wonderfully sweet and touching about the fact that Vincent would accept death partly to end his own misery. But even more so to take this terrible burden off of his beloved ill brother's shoulders.

Before his burial, there was a gathering at the Ravoux Inn to remember Vincent.

Sunflowers, of course. And on the walls, some of his Auvers paintings. The wheat fields. The town hall. A portrait of Adeline Ravoux, the teenager who served dinner every night to the troubled man who'd lived in the tiny room upstairs. The man who once wrote: "As a painter, I will never amount to anything important. I am absolutely sure of it."

Naifeh: The miracle is that this alienated person ended up becoming the most popular artist of all time. So he achieved exactly what he set out to achieve. I mean -

Smith: Yeah.

Naifeh: He did provide consolation for humanity. And that really is one of the great miracles of this story.

Thanks to David Brooks, vggallery.com and Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

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