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This reddit post claims that Vincent Van Gogh's final words were "la tristesse durera toujours", and that that translates to "the sadness will last forever". A google image search of "vincent van gogh last words" yields numerous quote websites repeating this claim. However, his wikipedia page makes no such statement, and I cannot find any good source of that claim. Does this claim have merit?

  • I edited the answer after you accepted it. Also the phrase is mentioned in Wikipedia e.g. here. – ChrisW Oct 4 '16 at 15:15
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Attributed to him in a letter from his brother:

Letter from Theo van Gogh to Elisabeth van Gogh Paris, 5 August 1890

“Il [Vincent] voulait mourir ; lorsque je me trouvais à son chevet, je lui ai dit que nous essayerions de la soigner et que nous espérions que cette sorte de désespoir le quitterait, il m’a alors dit : La tristesse durera toujours. Je comprends ce qu’il voulait dire par ces mots. Quelques moments plus tard, il a suffoqué et en moins d’une minute il avait fermé les yeux. Un grand repos s’est abattu sur lui dont il n’est jamais revenu”.

 

He himself wanted to die, when I sat at his bedside and said that we would try to get him better and that we hoped that he would then be spared this kind of despair, he said, “La tristesse durera toujours” [The sadness will last forever]. I understood what he wanted to say with those words.

A few moments later he felt suffocated and within one minute he closed his eyes. A great rest came over him from which he did not come to life again.

Other sources corroborate this e.g. here (with the letter in French) and here (describing his death).


Edit to add: I found the letter in French because I looked for it in French (because the OP said, "la tristesse durera toujours"). I wondered whether the original was more likely to have been in Dutch but apparently Vincent started to write his letters to Theo using French rather than Dutch in 1886, when Theo moved from Holland to France.


As for whether it's a good translation, it's pretty good and is the most obvious way to translate it.

Three possible ambiguities (or alternate ways to translate it):

  • "Sadness (in general)..." rather than "The (specific) sadness...".
  • It might be conditional. Durera isn't subjunctive (so my theory that it's conditional might be wrong), but maybe (based on the context i.e. the dialog in the story) there's an implied conditional (which, being only implied, might not need to be expressed using a subjunctive) ... i.e. the translation could be, "The sadness would last forever (if his brother healed his gun-shot wound)"
  • Toujours is ambiguous in French in that it can mean "forever" or "still": so another translation could be, "(In that case) the sadness will still exist".

Also the last line of the quotes above is a bit nicer in French. My more literal translation doesn't say "come to life again", it says, "A great rest (or ease) befell on him from which he has never returned."

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