Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Vincent Van Gogh's Ear
The true story!

On 23rd December, 1888 Vincent van Gogh cut off his right ear - an act that has come to define him. For more than a century, biographers and art historians have raised more questions than answers as to what exactly happened that fateful night in Arles.

Earlier this year, Bernadette Murphy - an amateur historian - shook the art world with the publication of her book in which she re-examined the stories and rumours associated with this celebrated act of self-mutilation, revealing not only the full extent of Vincent van Gogh's self-inflicted injury but the true identity of its recipient at a local brothel.

Bernadette Murphy

Since Bernadette herself lived near Arles, she began her research locally - in the town's archives, library, church registers and amongst her friends and neighbours, many of whose families dated back to the 1880's in Arles.

Why, she asked, would an artist at the height of his powers commit such a brutal act of self harm?
Was it just his ear lobe or did Van Gogh really cut off his entire ear?
Who was the mysterious 'Rachel' to whom he presented his macabre gift?

Was she really a prostitute?

The story begins in Arles where, with the financial support of his younger brother Theo, Vincent had moved. His plan was to form an artistic community of French painters, living and working together in the countryside of Provence, celebrated for its vibrant colours, bright sunlight and warm climate.

The 'Yellow House'

To that end he invited Paul Gaugin to join him at his apartment in Arles - a building known locally as 'The Yellow House'

Paul Gaugin in Arles

While both artists produced work of quality in the three months they shared Vincent's apartment, it was only a matter of time before two such highly-strung individuals would fall out. 

After a bitter argument on the 23rd December, Gaugin stormed out of the house, leaving his friend alone and  dissilusioned

Vincent's bedroom, Yellow House, Arles

That same night Vincent received a letter from his brother in Paris, announcing his plans to marry. Since Vincent was financially dependent on his younger brother, the demands of a new wife would surely mean the end - or at least the diminution - of the financial support Vincent desperately needed to survive in Provence.

That night he severed his right ear, wrapped it in paper and gave it to a young woman at the brothel in rue Bout d'Arles that he and Gaugin had frequented.

Later that night he was found back at his apartment, still bleeding profusely and in a state of deep depression. He was examined that night by a young doctor, Felix Rey:

Dr. Felix Rey - painted by Van Gogh

What Murphy discovered in her research was a sketch Rey had made, showing that van Gogh's right ear was completely severed. This was the first time this forensic evidence had been seen. The dotted line indicates the actual cut made by a clearly deranged Vincent van Gogh.

Murphy also discovered the identity of the young woman to whom van Gogh had given his severed ear. Although she sometimes worked at the brothel, she was not a prostitute but a cleaner.

Her name was not 'Rachel' but Gabrielle.

It is also likely that Vincent had met her earlier  - at a clinic in Paris that he attended and to which she had come for treatment following a savage attack by a rabid dog in Arles.

Could it be that Vincent, aware of the young girl's injuries, made his severed ear a token of his fellow sympathy for her?

We may never know but the mental breakdown that the events that night in Arles triggered resulted, two years later, in Vincent Van Gogh shooting himself.

During his troubled times in Provence, Vincent van Gogh produced some of his most celebrated work

The notion, however, that he was a lone genius creating an entirely new way of painting is simply not true for he - like Degas and Lautrec, for example - was under the influence of Japanese art

                                                                      Hiroshige                                   Van Gogh

To see exactly how Vincent and his contemporaries were influenced, see my posting called JAPONISME. You can access to this article by scrolling down or by typing JAPONISME into the SEARCH panel in the right-hand column


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