A new Vincent van Gogh biography is causing waves in the art community for its claim that the famed Dutch artist was accidentally shot by drinking companions, rather than a suicide.

In their book Van Gogh: The Life, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith challenge the long-held explanation for the painter's death in 1890: a self-inflicted gunshot wound (in a wheat field northwest of Paris) that led to his death less than two days later.

Instead, they theorize that van Gogh was shot — most likely accidentally — while in the company of two local lads with whom he had been drinking.

One of the two was known to have a malfunctioning gun that he enjoyed playing with, the authors claim in their biography, adding their belief that the artist hid the circumstances to protect the two youngsters.

However, Naifeh and Smith acknowledge in their book that "surprisingly little is known about the incident."

Van Gogh was just 37 when he died in Auvers-sur-Oise, France, after a prolific decade of creating art.

'Intriguing new perspectives'

The well-researched biography, a product of 10 years of work and consultation with van Gogh specialists, "represents a major contribution to our understanding of Vincent van Gogh's life and work, with intriguing new perspectives," according to a statement from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which contributed to the project.

"Obviously, this is a dramatic new claim about the cause of van Gogh's death that will generate a great deal of discussion. There have always been unresolved issues surrounding van Gogh's suicide, including such fundamental issues as the place of the incident and why van Gogh decided to commit suicide just then," said museum curator Leo Jansen.

The book provides "an intriguing interpretation [into van Gogh's death], but plenty of questions remain unanswered … all things considered, it would be premature to rule out suicide as the cause of death."

Two years ago, a pair of German historians published a book challenging the long-held belief that van Gogh cut off his own ear in a fit of madness. Rather, the duo postulated that it was fellow artist Paul Gauguin who lopped off van Gogh's ear during a drunken row.

With files from The Associated Press