Van Gogh Cut Off a Lot More Than His Earlobe

The self-inflicted wound was even worse than most thought

van gogh self portrait
"Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear" Vincent van Gogh 1889 Vincent van Gogh, via Wikimedia Commons

Aside from his beautiful paintings, one of the longest-lasting elements of Vincent van Gogh’s legacy is the story of his left ear. Memorialized in a self-portrait that depicts him with a bandage wrapped around his head, the question of just how much of his ear remained has persisted. While many scholars thought that van Gogh chopped off just a small part of his lobe, a recently uncovered letter suggests that the wound may have been much more extensive, James Adams reports for The Globe and Mail.

For years, the consensus among scholars was that on the night of December 23, 1888, van Gogh sliced off his left earlobe using a straight razor, which he then washed and gave to a local prostitute in the French town of Arles. Despite the inherent dramatics of the story, historians have resisted the popular characterization that van Gogh cut off his entire ear. However, amateur historian Bernadette Murphy recently discovered a drawing from the doctor who treated the artist that shows he took much more than scholars once thought, Sarah Laskow writes for Atlas Obscura.

Murphy uncovered the drawing scrawled on a letter in the Irving Stone Archives at the University of California Berkeley. Stone, an American writer who was partly responsible for reinvigorating public interest in van Gogh’s story, had visited Arles in 1930 while researching his biographical novel, Lust for Life. During this visit, Stone met with van Gogh’s doctor, Félix Rey, and asked him to sketch an illustration of what the artist’s ear looked like. Rey tore off a piece of paper from a prescription pad and sketched out the trajectory of van Gogh’s slice, which removed everything save for a nub of the earlobe.

van Gogh's ear
A diagram by Dr. Felix Rey, the attending physician, showing how and where van Gogh cut off his ear. The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

“I am happy to give you the information you have requested concerning my unfortunate friend,” Rey wrote in French beneath his sketch. “I sincerely hope that you won’t fail to glorify the genius of this remarkable painter, as he deserves.”

The grisly details debunk the usual story, which centers on the painter Paul Gauguin’s decision to leave Arles, leading his distraught friend van Gogh to cut off a chunk of his ear in a fit of madness. But instead, Rey’s sketch suggests that van Gogh’s self-inflicted maiming was more extreme, Jonathan Jones writes for The Guardian.

In her new book, Van Gogh’s Ear, Murphy also claims to shed light on several other elements of van Gogh’s time in Arles, including the true identity of the woman to whom van Gogh gave his severed ear. Previously believed to have been a local prostitute named Rachel, Murphy instead posits that the woman was in fact a maid in an Arles brothel named Gabrielle, Adams writes. Additionally, Murphy debunks a long-standing story that claimed hundreds of residents had signed a petition to either kick van Gogh out of the city or commit him to an asylum. According to her research, only 30 people signed the petition—a measly number in a city that had a population of 15,000 at the time. Many of the signers had close connections to van Gogh’s landlord, who wished to evict the artist, and several signatures may have been forgeries.

"This investigation has been an incredible adventure and discovering the document was an extraordinary moment,” Murphy says in a statement. "From my little house in Provence I couldn't believe I had found something new and important about Vincent van Gogh, but it was a vital detail in my complete re-examination of this most famous of artists, the key people he met in Arles and his tragic end."

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