A relative of the famous 19th century painter, Van Gogh was free-thinking and secular, courageous, and outspoken.
So when he was shot and stabbed to death yesterday while bicycling in central Amsterdam, many in Holland took the slaying as an attack on what it means to be Dutch.
Dana Linnsen, a film critic and magazine editor, remembers Van Gogh as a man who stood above all for freedom of expression -- no matter how controversial.
"He was a fighter for freedom of speech. So he was totally politically incorrect in all sayings, because he was against hypocrisy; he was against religious fundamentalism whether it came from, like, an Islamic or a Christian background," Linnsen says.
That is why to Linnsen -- and many of her fellow citizens -- it is doubly ironic that the police have detained a suspect the Interior Ministry described as having dual Dutch and Moroccan nationality and ties to radical Islam.
"In his films, you can see that he was a pure humanist. He was mainly interested in relationships between men and women on a very fundamental level. And he was trying to discover how people react, and why do they react as they do. Where do they come from? Where do they go?" Linnsen says.
Van Gogh's recent film, "Submission," created an outcry this summer among Dutch Muslims. It featured women in see-through robes showing their breasts, their bodies daubed with texts from the Koran, and talking about abuses to which women in Islam are exposed. The director acknowledged that he received death threats, but claimed to be unconcerned.
Yesterday, Dutch newspapers ran photos of two knives sticking out of Van Gogh's chest. One of the knives reportedly pinned a note with verses from the Koran. The government says it suspects the killer was motivated by radical Islam.
Muslim organizations have condemned the attack, but expressed fears about retaliation.
In The Hague, police arrested 35 people for inciting hatred and shouting anti-Muslim racist chants. Police have placed Van Gogh's collaborator on "Submission," Ayaan Hirsi Ali, under protection.
Holland is home to nearly 1 million Muslims. Surveys show the traditionally tolerant Dutch are increasingly fearful of Islamic extremism and more hostile toward immigration since the killing of politician Pim Fortuyn in May 2002.
Fortuyn had opposed immigration, but his killer was later described as a deranged animal rights activist.
Van Gogh had branded imams women-haters and ridiculed the Prophet Muhammad in his newspaper columns. Muslims said they found his work insulting. But in an interview last week on Dutch public radio, Van Gogh said it was unimaginable that anyone would want to harm him.
Film critic Linnsen interviewed Van Gogh last year. She recalls him as a gentle soul who belies his fiery reputation.
"People warned me about him, saying, 'Oh, he's so nasty, and he hates critics.' So I went there all prepared with like a thousand questions. But he turned out to be a very gentle, outspoken, and intelligent person, and even open for critique. And even someone you could really disagree with, and he would appreciate it, and he would appreciate people who engaged in a discussion with him. So, I mean, for me that is what is so bitter about this all, that a really well-thinking person has been killed for, well, speaking out," Linnsen said.
Van Gogh was the great-grandson of Theo, the brother of 19th century painter Vincent Van Gogh.
Like the old master, the director was known in his own way for originality. His films were considered distinctive, bold, and colorful.
In Amsterdam late yesterday, some 20,000 people gathered spontaneously to protest his slaying. Disdaining a silent wake, they stood on the central Dam Square and banged pots and pans and blew horns and whistles.
The family had called for the noise -- to symbolize Dutch freedom of speech.