5 Famous Artists Whose Deaths Remain Shrouded in Mystery

Vincent van Gogh, Caravaggio, Georges Seurat; these are famous artists we recognize and we can see their work in our heads, permanent on the canvas even years after their death.

Nov 3, 2020By Zoe Mann, BA Art History
vincent van gogh gunshot
Vincent van Gogh Installation Shot, via BBC News

 

It’s always upsetting when a favorite artist dies. Sometimes they die too young or before they see their fame, leaving behind an idea of what they could’ve become. Other famous artists die without any explanation; these deaths remain enigmas full of speculation and usually without resolution. Here is a list of five famous artists who died mysterious and inconclusive deaths. 

 

1. Vincent Van Gogh: Did The Famous Artist Commit Suicide?

vincent van gogh self portrait bandaged ear
Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear by Vincent van Gogh, 1889, via the Courtauld Gallery, London

 

Everyone knows the sad tale of Vincent van Gogh’s untimely death. Suffering from depression, Van Gogh committed suicide in 1890. At the time of his death, Van Gogh wasn’t a famous artist and only sold one artwork. If only he knew that one day he would be one of the most recognizable artists of all time and named amongst the greats with Da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Picasso.

 

On that July afternoon in 1890, Van Gogh shot himself in the chest near his home in the south of France. In 2011, a new biography on Van Gogh suggested something different, murder. 

 

vincent van gogh installation shot
Vincent van Gogh Installation Shot, via Getaway

 

The writers of the biography, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith received backlash on their murder claim. However, the writers tracked down a confession.

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In 1956, Vicente Minnelli directed a Van Gogh biopic titled Lust for Life which depicts Van Gogh’s suicide. After the film’s release, René Secrétan broke his silence on his involvement with the death of Van Gogh. Secrétan admitted to being obsessed with guns and pretended to be Buffalo Bill on occasion. He even kept his weapon at the Ravoux Inn, where Van Gogh lived. Secrétan shot into the air and a stray bullet hit the artist. The bullet didn’t hit any significant organs of Van Gogh; however, he didn’t go to a doctor, and it took 29 hours for the wound to take his life.

 

There aren’t many records on the matter, and the death certificate only says that the famous artist wounded himself, so whether it was accidental murder, an accident Van Gogh made, or suicide, we will never know the truth.

 

2. Caravaggio: A Death As Chaotic As The Artist?

caravaggio portrait
Drawing of the Portrait of Caravaggio by Ottavi Leoni, 1621-25, in the Biblioteca Marucellianavia, Florence, via The National Gallery, London

 

 A Baroque painter with a fiery temper, Caravaggio is the ‘bad boy’ of the art world. Caravaggio’s paintings are full of drama, emotion, and teetering on the insane. They do say that art imitates life, and Caravaggio’s life was dramatic indeed. 

 

To give an example of the famous artist’s infamous temper, he once threw a plate at a waiter because Caravaggio wanted his artichokes cooked with oil, not butter. So, yeah, dramatic.

 

Ever since he died in 1610, Caravaggio’s death was under speculation by art historians. Some say he died after complications with syphilis, or murder. In 2010 in Tuscany, investigators found bones and after conducting tests, revealed that there was an 85% chance the bones belonged to Caravaggio. After testing the bones, there was evidence of sepsis, which is an infection of the blood. He probably suffered an attack, didn’t clean the wound and died after being infected. This ending definitely would make sense for our fight-loving Caravaggio.   

 

 

judith beheading holofernes caravaggio
Judith Beheading Holofernes by Caravaggio, 1599, via Gallerie Nazionali Barberini, Rome

 

But not all art historians are convinced. For starters, the bones might not be Caravaggio. Also, some art historians believe that Caravaggio died of lead poisoning from the high levels of lead in 17th-century paint. Another theory was Caravaggio was killed by the Knights of Malta after he injured a member during a fight. He did have to flee Rome in 1606 after killing a man in a jealous brawl, so Caravaggio dying in another brawl makes sense.  

 

We may never know how this famous artist perished but what we can appreciate is Caravaggio’s ability never to shy away from protecting his honor, even if it was the lead paint talking.

 

3. Masaccio: Gone Too Soon

masaccio man in turban
A Young Man in a Scarlet Turban by Masaccio, 1425-27, via The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

 

Born Tommaso di Giovanni di Simone Cassai in Florence, Italy, Tommaso was given Masaccio by friends. Masaccio means ‘scruffy git’ or ‘silly tom’ which was inspired by Masaccio’s socially awkward and distant temperament. He was a young and moody artist who wanted to spend his time drawing rather than mingling with his Florentine peers. No matter how he acted, Masaccio was ahead of his time and a genius in painting. Unfortunately, Masaccio joined the infamous 27-club when he died of unknown causes.

 

Masaccio isn’t a household name, but without the brilliant work he created in his short life, there wouldn’t have been an Italian Renaissance. He was a genius of his time and inspired two other famous artists, Donatello and architect Brunelleschi. Without Masaccio’s influence and his naturalistic Florentine painting style, the Italian Renaissance wouldn’t have been as impactful. Who knows if the works of Raphael, Da Vinci, or Michelangelo would have even existed without Masaccio? 

 

massacio holy trinity
Holy Trinity by Masaccio, 1425-26, via Basilica of Santa Maria Novella, Florence

 

Art historians understand the influence of this not-so-famous artist; however, there aren’t many records on Masaccio. He died in 1428 but the exact date and cause of death are unknown. Historians speculate that he died of the bubonic plague, which was wreaking havoc in Europe at the time. But there is no concrete proof. Was it suicide? Maybe murder? Perhaps it was an accident that killed this early Italian Renaissance genius. We will never know. All we do know is that Masaccio was a brilliant artist taken too soon. At least Italy’s most famous ‘silly tom’ will live forever on the walls of Florence’s most beautiful churches.

 

4. Tom Thomson: Death On Canoe Lake

tom thomson fishing algonquin park
Tom Thomson fishing in Algonquin Park, via Calgary Herald

 

In July of 1917, artist Tom Thomson’s body was found face down in Canoe Lake in Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario. A lake he painted a million times before unfortunately took his life. But was it Mother Nature, or something more nefarious?

 

Not a famous artist in the States, Tom Thomson is Canada’s contribution to the modern art movement at the beginning of the 20th century. Murder and suicide theories have surrounded his untimely death at 39.

 

Tom Thomson knew Canoe Lake like the back of his hand. He painted it numerous times and had sailed on its waters. The coroner believed the death was accidental. Thomson probably stood up to cast his fishing pole, lost his balance, hit his head on the boat, and fell unconscious into Canoe Lake’s watery depths.

 

into the northland tom thompson
Into the Northland by Tom Thompson, 1915-16, via Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

 

However, the public wasn’t convinced. Thomson had a large suspicious bruise on his temple. The coroner was convinced this was from Thomson hitting the boat or even a rock on the bottom of the lake as he drowned. However, people speculated that he was hit on the head then thrown into the water to drown. Thomson’s paddle was also never found, maybe it was the murder weapon. In addition to the bruise, Thomson’s legs were tied together with wire. Canadians speculated that someone tied up Thomson before he ended up in the water. However, wire around ankles was a common practice for anybody suffering arthritis or joint pain at the time. 

 

Another theory was Thomson committed suicide after learning that a woman, possibly the daughter of the man who owned an inn Thomson frequented near Canoe Lake, was pregnant with his child. Maybe Thomson couldn’t afford to raise a child, or the anxiety of becoming a new dad was too much to bear. 

 

Canadians didn’t know how to handle the death of this famous artist, one who was an expert on the great outdoors and with his art selling at the National Gallery, so they had to make up rumors to make sense of the death.

  

5. Georges Seurat: Death By Mysterious Disease

georges seurat portrait
Portrait of Georges Seurat, via Evening Standard

 

The most patient artist of all time, Georges Seurat was a French neo-impressionist artist who created pointillism, the method of little painted dots that make up the bigger picture. Most of us know Seurat’s most famous work, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, the same work Cameron couldn’t look away from in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Seurat only worked for nine years before dying at 31 in 1891.

 

After falling ill, Seurat died quickly with additional tragedy to follow. Two weeks later, his son and father died the same way. Madeleine, his mistress, lost their second baby in childbirth and shortly died herself of liver disease at 35.

 

Historians have speculated the cause of the famous artist’s death that led to his family’s end. After falling ill with a cold, it quickly escalated to a fever and immobility. At the time, doctors didn’t know what was wrong. Seurat had a sharp pain in his chest, causing coughs and fever. After looking at these symptoms, doctors believed Seurat had angina, a heart disease caused by a limited amount of blood in the heart. After going delirious, Seurat eventually choked on fluids and died on Easter Sunday.

 

georges seurat
A Sunday on La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat, 1884, via Art Institute of Chicago

 

Seurat’s death continues to be under speculation; what could have killed the famous artist and most of his family? Some blame meningitis or pneumonia. However, most historians agree that Seurat died of diphtheria, a deadly respiratory disease. Its highly contagious nature means Seurat gave it to his family, and them living in close quarters in a small apartment in Paris would make it easy to spread the disease. Diphtheria was an epidemic in France in the 19th century, and even though it mostly affected children, Seurat could have still succumbed to the disease.   

 

Historians can’t investigate his body and look for clues to prove the theory; however, Seurat’s work and legacy live on in the many dots that fill his masterpieces.

 

Looking For Answers After The Deaths Of Famous Artists

van gogh exhibition
Vincent van Gogh Installation View, via The Academy of Art University, San Francisco 

 

When a famous artist dies, the public and art historians scramble for answers. For artists who died mysteriously, there is only a larger desire for answers. However, sometimes we never find the answers we want, and their deaths remain mysteries. The only thing we can do is celebrate their work and legacy.

 



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By Zoe MannBA Art HistoryZoë is a graduate student living in Los Angeles studying screenwriting. Originally from New York, she received her B.A. in Art History from Pace University. She has worked in art galleries in Manhattan and the Art Institute of Chicago. In her free time, she loves researching for her historical fiction projects and playing with her cat, Harrison.