Van Gogh's Ear

Van Gogh's Ear

by Bernadette Murphy


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The best-known and most sensational event in Vincent van Gogh’s life is also the least understood. For more than a century, biographers and historians seeking definitive facts about what happened on a December night in Arles have unearthed more questions than answers. Why would an artist at the height of his powers commit such a brutal act? Who was the mysterious “Rachel” to whom he presented his macabre gift? Did he use a razor or a knife? Was it just a segment—or did Van Gogh really lop off his entire ear?

In Van Gogh’s Ear, Bernadette Murphy reveals, for the first time, the true story of this long-misunderstood incident, sweeping away decades of myth and giving us a glimpse of a troubled but brilliant artist at his breaking point. Murphy’s detective work takes her from Europe to the United States and back, from the holdings of major museums to the moldering contents of forgotten archives. She braids together her own thrilling journey of discovery with a narrative of Van Gogh’s life in Arles, the sleepy Provençal town where he created his finest work, and vividly reconstructs the world in which he moved—the madams and prostitutes, café patrons and police inspectors, shepherds and bohemian artists. We encounter Van Gogh’s brother and benefactor Theo, his guest and fellow painter Paul Gauguin, and many local subjects of Van Gogh’s paintings, some of whom Murphy identifies for the first time. Strikingly, Murphy uncovers previously unknown information about “Rachel”—and uses it to propose a bold new hypothesis about what was occurring in Van Gogh’s heart and mind as he made a mysterious delivery to her doorstep.

As it reopens one of art history’s most famous cold cases, Van Gogh’s Ear becomes a fascinating work of detection. It is also a study of a painter creating his most iconic and revolutionary work, pushing himself ever closer to greatness even as he edged toward madness—and one fateful sweep of the blade that would resonate through the ages.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374279691
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 07/12/2016
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Bernadette Murphy was born and raised in the U.K. She has lived in the south of France for most of her adult life and worked in many different fields. Van Gogh’s Ear is her first book.

Read an Excerpt

Van Gogh's Ear

By Bernadette Murphy

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2016 Bernadette Murphy
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-71602-8


Reopening the Cold Case

The start of a new adventure is always the most enjoyable – not knowing where you are going, or what you might find; it can be very exciting. This particular adventure began seven years ago.

I live in the south of France about 50 miles from the town of Arles, famed for its Roman ruins and for being the home of Vincent van Gogh in the late 1880s. It was in Arles where Van Gogh famously cut off his ear. I'm a frequent visitor to the city with friends or family and around every other corner there is a tour guide peddling the legend of the crazy Dutch artist to hordes of spellbound tourists. The strange tale never fails to excite. From my experience, few of the locals seem to know Van Gogh's life story in depth, details have been embroidered and exaggerated, others have become pure invention. As his fame has grown so have the opportunities. A local bar had for more than sixty years a prominent sign that proudly proclaimed it was 'the café painted by Van Gogh'. The oldest woman in the world, a native of Arles, made the end of her life more interesting when she declared that she was the last person to have 'known Vincent van Gogh'. Even the ear part of the story has a particularly local twist: Van Gogh gave his ear to a girl because that's what the matador does at the end of a bullfight – one of many theories that have created the myth. It is arguably the most famous anecdote about any artist and has come to define his character and his art for generations. We cannot see a Van Gogh painting without interpreting his brushstrokes in the light of his much-documented breakdown. Yet it is a story swathed in myth.

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the world's centre of expertise in all things Van Gogh, describes what happened: 'On the evening of 23 December 1888, Van Gogh suffered an acute mental breakdown. As a result he cut off part of his left ear and took it to a prostitute. The police found him at home the following day and had him admitted to hospital.'

Something happened to Vincent van Gogh in Arles, something had made his painting reach its greatest expression and yet had also pushed him to utter despair. One day, I thought, I would try to better understand what had taken place that December night in 1888.

* * *

I came to live in Provence more than thirty years ago, by chance. I was visiting an older brother and I ended up staying. With practically no knowledge of French I stumbled from job to job, gradually improving my language skills. For a long time, I struggled to make a living and it was more than ten years before I managed to get regular work. Slowly, I began to build my life; I moved to a little village and in time bought a house. One day I realised that I had spent more time in France than I had in the country of my birth. Despite this stability, I was restless. The challenge – and excitement – of working and living in a new environment had long gone. As the years passed, I felt underwhelmed by what life seemed to be offering me. Then fate intervened. My oldest sister died and around the same time I had health problems of my own. Off work recuperating, I had plenty of time on my hands. Ever since I was a child I have enjoyed unravelling puzzles. The thought of investigating Van Gogh's story and really understanding what happened on that fateful day in December 1888, suddenly seemed the perfect way to spend my time.

Stuck at home with no access to a library or archives, I used the art books I had on my shelves and did some research online to begin with. I went back to the Van Gogh Museum's summary and immediately had questions. 'Cut off part of his left ear' – only part? Like most people, I had always believed that he had cut off his whole ear. Where had this assumption come from? And who was this prostitute? Why would Van Gogh take her such a gory gift? And how did Van Gogh arrive in Arles in February 1888 with such excitement and promise, only to kill himself less than two and a half years later?

Before long I had set out a timeline of Van Gogh's life in Arles. Yet the more I learned, the more I questioned. At first these were small issues; just points that I felt had been misunderstood or were illogical to someone who lived locally. But the more I delved, the more these inconsistencies began to niggle me. For example, apparently Van Gogh caught a train from Paris to the south that dropped him in a town a full 10 miles from his destination – why would he do that, if he was weighed down with luggage and painting paraphernalia? Generations of experts and scholars had looked at every aspect of the artist's life and I found it hard to believe that I was the first person to notice some of these discrepancies. Perhaps they were small inconsequential details that hadn't bothered others or hadn't been followed up, but I began to wonder – if these points had been misunderstood, what else might be wrong. The greatest number of my questions concerned the infamous ear story.

Vincent van Gogh was a dedicated correspondent, and most of what we know about his life outside the paintings comes from his own pen, yet he never referred directly to the drama in his letters. The facts surrounding the night of 23 December 1888 are decidedly murky. The one person who could have answered these questions, and whose first-hand testimony should have been trustworthy, was the French artist Paul Gauguin, who was staying with Van Gogh at the time. But Gauguin in fact added to the confusion by leaving two differing accounts of the drama, one given shortly after the event, and one many years later. It soon became clear: there is very little actual proof of what happened that night. Our principal knowledge of the drama rests on two self-portraits and a single newspaper article:

Le Forum Républicain, Sunday, 30 December 1888

Local news: Arles

Last Sunday, at half-past eleven in the evening, Vincent Vaugogh [sic] a painter, a native of Holland, turned up at the 'House of Tolerance no. 1', asked for a certain Rachel, and handed her ... his ear, telling her: 'Keep this object carefully.' Then he disappeared.

It was astonishing there was not more coverage. Nineteenth-century newspapers are full of the minutiae of life from ordinary people: a lost purse, linens stolen from washing lines, an earring found, locals arrested for drunkenness. Even if Vincent was still a relatively unknown painter in 1888, I wondered why the other newspapers in Arles had never bothered to report this strange incident.

The timing of my project was fortuitous. It coincided with a new publication of Van Gogh's letters, which were also made available online. Some of the less palatable aspects of his life – his patronage of brothels, for example – had been glossed over in earlier editions, particularly in translated versions of the correspondence. To date, almost 800 letters have been published, which provide invaluable insights into the life and creativity of this extraordinary man. The largest number, and the most intensely personal of the letters, were those Van Gogh sent to his younger brother, Theo. Many of these were written while the brothers were living apart, especially after Van Gogh moved to Arles in February 1888. They provide a unique snapshot of his arrival in the city and the friends he made there. Reading his letters, I entered his world, shared his enthusiasm and disappointment and watched over his shoulder as he painted his greatest artworks. As the months went by, if I was ever in doubt, I would return to read Vincent's own words.

For my investigation I decided I would start from scratch. It feels odd to re-examine the work of those who have spent years on the study of Van Gogh and his work; what could I possibly bring that hadn't already been discovered or rejected? At this stage, I had no idea. But I wanted to find out for myself. If I was to find anything new, I would have to look in places that others perhaps hadn't. I decided to use primary sources as much as possible in my research. I hoped to build up a picture of Vincent and his life in Arles that was entirely my own. This would be my adventure and my discovery, and perhaps all the more fun for it.

I understand the region and its idiosyncrasies well. Like Van Gogh, I come from northern Europe and moved south. I, too, am the outsider, and I have had to confront confusion, prejudice and presumption – many of the issues he faced in the 1880s – and such intimate local knowledge has proved vital to my investigation and afforded me many invaluable insights. France is a regional country: each area has a particular way of life, cuisine, landscape, language and culture that has formed over centuries. Provence has its own distinct personality. That a person from Paris is completely different to a person from Arles is as true now as it was at the end of the nineteenth century. Parisians are famous in France for being self-contained and snooty; whereas Provençal people are considered exuberant and, superficially at least, are friendly. In my experience, once you are accepted, local people will help you in any way they can, though this acceptance might well take many years. Above all, the people of southern France are clannish, inherently wary of what they call estrangers. This Provençal term signifies much more than its literal meaning of 'foreigner'. It is used to refer to anyone who is not from your family, religion or immediate environment. In a wider sense, calling someone an estranger implies that the person is not completely trustworthy; true today, but even more so a hundred years ago.

From the outset my plan was to undertake a forensic investigation into what happened on 23 December 1888. It seemed logical to put myself in the shoes of Joseph d'Ornano, the chief of police in Arles at the time. He would be my guide. There was common ground: the chief had arrived in the city at the beginning of 1888 and would have had to learn about the people, the geography, the customs, in exactly the same way I would to understand Van Gogh's time there. Arles was the most appropriate place to start, so I wrote to the town archives to make an appointment to visit. One sparkling winter day I set off on the first of what would turn out to be more than a hundred trips to the city.

* * *

The town archives are housed in the chapel of the former public hospital – the only remaining building in Arles still standing where Vincent van Gogh spent time. There is a garden in a central courtyard; these days it is constantly planted and replanted to resemble the scene Van Gogh described as being 'all full of flowers and springtime greenery'. Walking through the austere stone gateway into the abundance of flowers and shrubs is truly enchanting. The early-morning walk along the first-floor terrace, facing due south, towards the heavy walnut door of the Municipal Archives is now very familiar. It is a peaceful moment, when there is hope and anticipation of what I might find that day. As the beautiful wrought-iron handle is turned, the old door makes a loud click, announcing the arrival of a new visitor. Few people look up. Each person is hunched over a table, absorbed in his or her work. Inside, the room is very quiet, with just the gentle rustle of dusty sheets of paper being turned.

Although I was welcomed and helped by the kind staff at the archives, my first visit was disappointing. I was shown everything the city had on Van Gogh. I had imagined I would have stacks of boxes to rummage through; yet all I was given were a few sheets of paper dating from early 1889. It felt almost as if Van Gogh had never lived in Arles. There are no police reports of the ear-drama, no witness statements and no patient records from the hospital. There are no hotel registers that list his name and no trace of any house rented by Van Gogh. And no one who knew him in Arles ever wrote down their recollections of the artist. This lack of background detail was even more surprising because the story unfolded in a country that, certainly from my experience, is steeped in bureaucracy and red tape. It was bewildering.

Founded by the Romans more than 2,000 years ago, Arles is one of the oldest cities in France. Its archive is monumental for such a relatively small place, with documents dating from the twelfth century; Van Gogh is only a tiny part of its long history. The archive is so vast that it hasn't yet been digitally catalogued, so I spent that first day flicking through the old-fashioned card index and familiarising myself with the system. Given the lack of ready information, I would have to go deeper, I reasoned, and try to find information through a circuitous route. Van Gogh lived in Arles between 20 February 1888 and 8 May 1889 so I requested the census records closest to that date, to see if I could find anything. Censuses were taken in 1886 and 1891, but only the 1886 census was available. I asked where I could consult the missing census and was told by Sylvie Rebuttini, the chief archivist, that she had never seen a copy in Arles. I found all sorts of information that day, though how relevant it was going to be later, I could only guess at. With so little to go on, anything could be important. Scrolling through the names, I found details concerning the prostitutes working in the city in the 1880s, listed as being 'FS', meaning fille soumise, literally a 'girl under the thumb'. Given that a prostitute called Rachel featured in Van Gogh's story, I thought this research might provide some useful information. I started a small list of these working girls and the brothel owners, described as limonadiers (lemonade-sellers) on the census returns. The quaint terms tickled me.

No matter how delighted I was by these details, a much bigger problem was becoming increasingly apparent. I had no idea what Arles looked like in 1888. Not only did the part of town that Van Gogh lived in bear little relation to the modern-day city, but new street names and an extensive post-war building programme had made it even more confusing and unrecognisable. I wasn't the only researcher who had encountered this problem. A two-dimensional map of Van Gogh's part of town had been drawn in 2001, but it lacked detail. If I was to build up a picture of what Arles was like in the 1880s when Van Gogh first stepped off the train, I needed to know more. The first task was to understand exactly why and how the city had changed so dramatically.

* * *

On 25 June 1944 the 455th Bomb Group of the US Air Force took off at 5.20 a.m. from San Giovanni airfield near Foggia in the south of Italy. The mission of these thirty-eight B-24s was to disable the bridges along the Rhône to prepare the terrain for the Allied landings. This expedition would be part of the first phase of the Liberation. For the 455th Bomb Group it was a particularly long-haul flight – a 1,770-kilometre (1,100-mile) round trip. This was its sixty-seventh mission, and one of the targets was the railway bridge in Arles.

By late June 1944 air-raid sirens had been going off for months, but Arles had never yet suffered a direct hit. The frequency of these air-raid warnings quickly followed by an 'all clear' led the people of Arles to become a little complacent.

It was a beautiful clear Sunday morning and most of the city was returning from Mass. The shelters were located close to one another in the centre of town, in the only places considered strong enough to withstand aerial bombing – under the Roman amphitheatre and forum. As the first air-raid siren sounded at 9.25 a.m., people in the city centre rushed to the designated shelters.

The bombardment came at 9.55. Within ten minutes the aircraft had dropped 112 tonnes (110 tons) of bombs from a height of 14,500 feet, over the marshalling yards and warehouses on both sides of the river. From such a height it was impossible to bomb accurately, and no direct hits were observed on the bridge itself. As the aircraft made its way back to base, the crew's report noted that fires could be seen near the target.

On the ground there was pandemonium. The 'all clear' siren wasn't working, so no one dared leave the shelters. Only the emergency services ventured out to see what had happened, rushing nervously to the ruins to help dig out the wounded and excavate bodies from the rubble. On that midsummer morning forty-three people lost their lives. The devastation to the city was such that some of the victims were only discovered a month later.

The area that had received the worst of the bombing was north of the city, close to the station. It was a section of town outside the walls, called La Cavalerie, named after the old city gate, which was still standing. In 1888 this area had been the home of Vincent van Gogh. Within minutes on 25 June 1944 the city Van Gogh knew – the cafés he frequented, the first hotel he stayed in, the brothels he visited and even his home, the Yellow House – was wiped completely off the map.


Excerpted from Van Gogh's Ear by Bernadette Murphy. Copyright © 2016 Bernadette Murphy. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations xi

Prologue 1

1 Reopening the Cold Case 5

2 Distressing Darkness 16

3 Disappointment and Discovery 26

4 Almighty Beautiful 36

5 Living in Vincent's World 47

6 Night Owls 56

7 Monsieur Vincent 70

8 A Friend in Need 81

9 A Home at Last 92

10 The Artists' House 106

11 Prelude to the Storm 114

12 A Very Dark Day 121

13 The Murky Myth 126

14 Unlocking the Events 137

15 Aftermath 150

16 'Come Quickly' 157

17 'Alone on the Sad Sea' 169

18 Betrayal 183

19 Sanctuary 204

20 Wounded Angel 217

21 Troubled Genes 229

22 'The Certainty of Unhappiness' 236

Epilogue 249

Acknowledgements 255

Notes 259

Bibliography 307

Index 315

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