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About that Wheat field

Wheatfield with Crows was once thought to be Vincent van Gogh’s very last work. I’ve even heard it described as his ‘suicide note.’ Obviously if you accept that dating and see it from that viewpoint, you’ll read the scene a certain way. Those are troubled skies, the wheat is driven and disheveled by harsh winds, and crows always seem to carry a ‘bad omen’ aura. At least they do to me. If you think he painted this in the shadow of his approaching death then that bright path through the field appears like a way of escape. That he escaped by fatally wounding himself in just such a field adds to the poignancy. This melancholy interpretation still has its proponents.

But really it’s all melodrama. This wasn’t his final painting, that much is certain. He painted it on July 10, 1890. Vincent had kept up a frenzied pace of almost one painting per day those last few months, and he completed several more between this one and his passing on the 29th. So it’s not a suicide note. Could it still be an expression of hopelessness? Of course, but I don’t think it is. Unlike me, van Gogh always felt crows were good omens, so their presence here may be enough to imply something more hopeful. We also have a letter he wrote that month which gives us a peak into his mind. He wrote that his wheat field landscapes easily expressed sadness and loneliness but that they also powerfully conveyed his personal sense of health and restoration. Rural and pastoral settings had always done that for him. My point is that his state of mind at the time was complicated—it always was—but not desperately bleak. That’s why I think a despairing interpretation is one the viewer has to force onto this painting.

Now I’ll go one step further: what if Vincent van Gogh didn’t take his own life? It’s controversial, but some scholars of his life have been rethinking the widely accepted story of his suicide. They make a compelling case that his death was accidental manslaughter involving a troop of young boys. He had often expressed an aversion to suicide but just as often added that he wouldn’t try to stop death if he knew it were coming. So when in fact it was coming, he made very cryptic confessions of suicide to shield those boys from prosecution. Ultimately, he had let his life slip away but had not fired the fatal bullet. This hypothesis has its vocal detractors, as you might expect, but I can’t do justice to the debate here. I guess you’ll have to hit Google up for it, if you’re interested.

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