It ranks among the most famous body parts of history, on a level with Venus de Milo’s missing arm, Pinocchio’s nose, and the penis of the statue of a little boy in the Grand Place in Brussels from which emerges a continuous splash of water.
I refer, you may have guessed, to Vincent van Gogh’s ear – the ear that he cut off, in whole or in part during an attack of hysteria brought on by the departure of his painter friend Paul Gauguin from their Yellow House in Arles, France.
This most famous of the early modern painters is known as much for his troubled mental state as for his brilliant artwork. And despite the efforts of legions of physicians, psychologists and psychoanalysts to fathom the exact nature of van Gogh’s illness, the world today knows little more of it than on the sultry day in 1890 when he took his life by gunshot (or was it an accident?).
As van Gogh struggled with apparent attacks of epilepsy that rendered him near senseless, he managed to create the greatest works of his lifetime. Most of this took place in the southern French town of Arles, and in the mental institute of Saint Paul de Mausole in nearby Saint-Rémy.
Doctors had various theories as to the cause of van Gogh’s problems but few answers. Sigmund Freud was still meddling with hypnotism. The emerging psychiatrists of the day were known as alienists, trying to understand the alienation sick patients were indicating as the key symptom to their mental illness.
Van Gogh’s attack on his ear, which came on the night before Christmas Eve in 1889 after escalating arguments with his house guest Paul Gauguin, provides the focal point of a fascinating new book, Van Gogh’s Ear; The True Story.
The author, Bernadette Murphy, is an obscure Englishwoman who lived for many years in the South of France before taking up a study of van Gogh’s life. Once she got started, she was indefatigable. Her book is as much a story of her research into forgotten archives that would shed fresh detail on van Gogh, as it is a retelling of the painter’s life.
“Practically everything I thought I knew about van Gogh in Arles when I set off on this adventure turned out not to be true,” she confesses.
Ms. Murphy made three remarkable discoveries. In musty boxes at the University of California, she had a custodian find a drawing of van Gogh’s ear by the physician who attended him in Arles, Dr. Félix Rey. It shows that van Gogh severed nearly the whole of his ear, and not just the lobe as has been generally believed. After more than a century, the mystery appears to have been solved.
Ms. Murphy was also able to establish the true identity of Rachel, the girl in the brothel to whom van Gogh presented his newspaper-wrapped ear, telling her to take good care of it. And the famous petition demanding van Gogh’s removal to an asylum was engineered, according to the author, by a real estate agent conniving to rent the Yellow House to a more reputable tenant.
In writing Van Gogh’s Ear, Ms. Murphy might have given more attention to the role that self-injury plays in emotionally disturbed people. The Mayo Clinic says “this type of self-injury is an unhealthy way to cope with emotional pain, intense anger and frustration.” Certainly van Gogh was undergoing such pain in Arles that Christmas, and indeed throughout much of his life.
Bernadette Murphy sees van Gogh’s actions that night as “altruistic – the behaviour of a thoughtful, sensitive, and extremely empathetic man,” one who was “far more than the sum of his torments ”
I was drawn to Van Gogh’s Ear because I’m working on my own upcoming book which I call Van Gogh’s Ghost. In it, I recount my search for the 21st century legacy of this great and troubled artist. But you don’t have to be writing about van Gogh to enjoy reading of him, and Bernadette Murphy’s contribution is an enjoyable and revealing addition to the shelves of van Gogh literature.