What happened at night in December 1888 when Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear?

adminDecember 30, 2018

Vincent van Gogh, self-portrait with bandage on the earImage copyright
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What is the true story behind the most disturbing mystery of modern art?

In 1888, in the French town of Arles, there was an event that would become a modern legend: A foreigner came to a brothel door and gave one of the girls a pack containing a bloody piece of his own meat.

The men's name was Vincent van Gogh.

At that time he was an unknown painter and without success, but he would stay one of the most famous artists of all time.

That year in Provence he defined it: he was the one who saw him, creating his most valuable masterpieces, but also the one he mutilated.

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He was found in bed at 7 in the morning On christmas eve curled up in a fetal position and with his head wrapped in rags drenched in blood.

The policeman who found him thought he was dead.

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In the beautiful room they found him huddled.

Van Gogh's ear is undoubtedly the most famous event in modern art history.

NAdieHowever, Know what really happened that day in December 1888.

In fact, for too short a time, we couldn't even be sure he cut his ear.

  • The desperate search for Van Gogh's bed

The race

The old town of Arles is located at the northern end of the Camargue, only about 30 kilometers from the French Mediterranean coast.

Vincent van Gogh he came there at age 35, when he was a failed artist who fled from Paris to a brighter world, and he believed, cleaner.

Culturally located Arles between France and Spain, it is a romantic place for cowboys and gypsies, with its own language, culture and colorful costumes.

In fact, Van Gogh participated in a bullfight in April.

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Van Gogh was more attracted to people on the stand than the races themselves.

When he painted the scene, Van Gogh focused on exotic women in the stands, not the bloody action in the arena.

"The crowd was amazing"he wrote to a friend." The local women and girls had simple clothes in green, red, pink or habanero yellow. And above all, a sulfurous sun in a living blue sky. "

"It was all as cheerful as Holland is depressing," he said.

The reason?

For the locals, the bloody end of the bulls is the explanation of the brutal episode of Van Gogh in Arles.

They think what Van Gogh did with his ear It is explained with bullfighter Then, at the end of a successful race, they cut off the bull's ears and handed them to a lucky man in the audience.

The problem with this version is that when Van Gogh was in Arles, they didn't cut the bull's ears. This tradition was imported from Spain later.

The mystery still stood and a foreigner continued to unravel it.

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Pure curiosity

Art historian Bernadette Murphy moved to Provence in 1983, where she was fascinated by the stories that circulated about the most famous foreigner of these parts, Vincent van Gogh.

He was surprised to discover the little that was known Surely at night he says he's sitting on his ear.

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Bernadette Murphy, an amateur who discovered more than she dared to imagine.

"I was wondering: Are there no police or medical records? so much ambiguity? "he told the BBC.

And then the adventure began.

Since 2010 he has spent years researching the city's registration offices, archives and archives of Arles and beyond.

Nothing safe

His first instinct was to understand the crime scene, the most famous artist's studio all the time.

"The Yellow House" It was the inspiration for some of Van Gogh's most memorable paintings and the studio where he painted many of his masterpieces.

It was in the northern end of town, in Place Lamartine, until 1944, but it was bombed in the war.

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It was in the yellow house with green windows where everything happened.

Regarding the events of that evening in 1888, he had what was reported in the local press.

"At 11.30 a man named Monsieur Vincent came to the door of a brothel on Rue du Bout Arles. He asked a girl named Rachel. When she arrived, she gave him his own cut ear".

But can you really rely on these reports?

In some, the nationality was Dutch, in others, Polish. Three versions say the ear was in a package, another, holding it in its place in the head. Most say that Rachel was a prostitute, but one says she worked in a cafe.

With so many inconsistencies, Bernadette wanted to find out what was true, even though it was the fact that she had cut off her ear.

It's something we all think we know about Van Gogh, but the world's leading experts they were not convinced That's what really happened.

Guaranteed data

In Amsterdam, the center of the artist's world, the Van Gogh Museum, is founded by its descendants.

The grand museum houses the world's largest collection of his paintings, and is visited by nearly 2 million people a year.

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The museum was founded by Vincent van Gogh's descendants.

In their research center there is evidence that the question of the ear is questioned: a letter from painter Paul Signac, who visited Van Gogh shortly after his injury.

"I saw it last in Arles in the spring of 1889," he says.

"I was already in the hospital in town, but the day of my visit was just fine, and I had the famous band around my head and a fur hat.

"A few days before, it had been cut it øreplagget"

Also, apparently supporting this version, there is a drawing by Van Gogh on his death bed made by the doctor who treated him one and a half later.

In it, Vincent Van Gogh sees with his eyes closed and the top of his ear completely intact.

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Van Gogh on his deathbed.

It is on the one hand a statement from an eyewitness, and another from an eyewitness, both indicating that Van Gogh The gap was cut, not the whole ear.

But there are also all newspapers of the time, saying he interrupted his ear.

Who should believe?

For the authorities in the subject, those of the Van Gogh Museum, it first the version was always accepted: The painter just cut a piece of lobe.

So the whole thing was a minor event that exaggerated over time?

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"… this world was never meant for anyone as beautiful as you". "Vincent" by Don McLean

Unlike most other artists, Vincent van Gogh's life is as well known as his work.

In his self-portraits, we see the dead man's fixed eyes of 37, whose vision was simply too intense for the world.

If you don't cut off your ear, Is everything his history based on a lie?

The man who arrived in Arles was 35 years old and had many records suggesting a tortured soul.

Born in 1853, the son of a Dutch Protestant minister, they suspected near him that he could be mentally ill. He could not maintain his career as an art dealer, pastor or teacher assistant.

Instead of respectable people, he was attracted to the peasants and the poor women on the streets, the only ones who tolerated his personality strange and fanatic.

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The only man who was a constant support and affection was his brother Theodore, whom Vincent often wrote letters like this.

There were times in life when he was so alone that the only person he spoke to during the day was the cafe waiter when he asked for lunch.

But there were some who were always by his side: his younger brother Theo.

Theo was a successful art dealer, and he was the one who offered him a new career as a painter.

But couldn't sell anyoneto of his first work.

In February 1888, when he moved to Arles, Van Gogh was a failed painter, completely dependent on his brother.

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His first work was as dark as he perceived the world around him.

However, things improved a lot in Provence.

He conducted daily excursions in search of inspiration for a new type of art, and found it.

He completely left the grasses and wells in Northern Europe, and in southern France he discovered a brand new and dazzling world.

When he arrived where he wanted to be, he attacked the canvas. "I'm not following any recognized system," he said. "I hit him with irregular brush strokes, which I leave as they are.

"I am tempted to believe that the results are so disturbing and annoying Don't please people with the conditions of the technique".

He was right: no one understood the moment we now look like his masterpiece.

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A new way to paint.

He wrote to Theo that he had found the future of modern art. And he dreamed that a whole movement of artists would soon join him in a joint mission.

What made this optimistic dreamer Vincent a mental patient capable of self-harm?

Another important character in this story gives some clues

For weeks before the bloody incident, Van Gogh had lived with a great artist: the infamous Paul Gauguin.

The great Gaugin

Gauguin was a very valued painter, complicated and interesting, but also very admitted.

It must have been very charismatic, because not only attracted women but also acolytes.

Van Gogh was one of his admirers, and when he came to convert the yellow house to the fraternity headquarters of artists who wanted to create the future of modern art, the first he thought was Gaugin.

He spent weeks convincing him to join the utopia.

He painted "sunflowers" to decorate the Gauguin bedroom.

And he bought 12 wicker chairs for the brother artists and a more ornate chair for Gauguin, whose age and success the parent's father in his community would do.

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The Gauguin chair was special.

But the real Gauguin could not be more different than Van Gogh's ideal.

He was a real former banker, publisher, and serial infidel who came to Arles when he found a difficult person and without confidence.

Gauguin was just gone because Theo had paid him, and a few days later he started writing to his friends in Paris and said to them, "I have to get out of here, I can't take it anymore."

Van Gogh's dream of brotherhood was judged from the beginning. Not only he and Gauguin had different personalitiesbut they also disagreed about the art.

Gauguin liked to paint from his imagination. Van Gogh's custom of painting what he saw seemed ridiculous. He produced a mocking portrait of Van Gogh who paints the sun beds.

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This is the portrait where Gauguin painted Van Gogh painting sunflowers.

Van Gogh saw it and said: "It's me, but I'm crazy".

According to Gauguin, after showing him the painting, they went to a bar and Van Gogh asked for a glass of absinthe, threw it on him, but he dodged it, took it home and put it to bed.

The next morning Van Gogh woke up and said, "Dear Gauguin, I have a guard memory that I insulted you last night."

Your dreams of artistic brotherhood they became nightmaresand he lost control of his fragile mental health.

In addition, in one of his paintings there is evidence of another problem that disturbed him.


The Kroller-Muller Museum, in the Dutch countryside, is a canvas that is not so well-known Van Gogh.

It is one of the first paintings he produced after the night, he cut his ear, and he has proven himself a mining track for the experts on their mental state that night.

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A quiet life with onions in the middle, a bottle, a coffee maker … and more.

The survey has focused on the letter that appears at the bottom right, as we now know it received the morning of the incident.

It is known that it belongs to his brother, since his handwriting is noticeable and carries the seal 67 at the post office that Theo went.

The freight mark is what was used in Christmas and New Year, which shows that it was shipped in December.

The hypothesis is that it is the letter that his brother announced his commitment to Johanna bongs.

Why would this news disturb him?

Theo, for him, was his best friend. It was his emotional and financial support. If the news made him fear that he would lose him, it would have contributed to his mental crisis.

Van Gogh received the news of his brother's commitment on December 23, the same day Gauguin told him he was leaving.

Was this the moment when Van Gogh lost control of reality?

Ears of hundreds

Gauguin himself later recorded the erratic conversation of Van Gogh.

"He mentioned gothic novels, with a totally stalked madness, he reflected on the murders of prostitutes reported in the papers and on the betrayal of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, then Saint Peter cut the ear to one hundred percent.

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"Treason in the Garden of Gethsemane: Judas kisses Jesus and Peter cuts Malchus' ear".

"It was so strange that I couldn't do it," Gauguin said. "He said to myself:" Are you going? "And when I said yes, he started this sentence from a newspaper and put it in my hand.

"It says: "The killer escaped"".

Horrified, Gauguin went to spend the night in a hotel, left Van Gogh alone with his demons.


Bernadette Murphy had all this knowledge.

But at least two aspects seemed confusing: the first was Rachel, The girl van gogh went to look for that night.

Knowing your identity can help you understand what led you to seek it.

He concentrated on the last place they saw Van Gogh at night he turned his ear: Rue du Bout d'Arles, just 100 meters from Casa Amarilla.

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A most beautiful night

It is known that Van Gogh was a frequent user of brothels, because he and his brother spoke openly about it in their letters. It was an integral part of the life of a nineteenth-century man.

"In the nineteenth century France, brothels were governed by the state. Toleransehus"Bernadette explained to the BBC.

"Prostitutes and madamis were recorded in the census with delicate euphemisms for their work as"limonadier"There may be someone who ran a brothel or someone who sold lemonade.

"Prostitutes were registered as fille soumise or submissive woman", counts.

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Limonadies and full soumise were the euphemisms used so that they would not remain in the official registers such as "madame de un brdelle" or "prostituta".

But among those times there is no Rachel, a name itself very unusual in that region.

Bernadete, however, came across a clue that began to clarify everything: an old newspaper article cited the policeman who attended the crime scene and said that The girl's name was Gaby.

When he reassessed the records again and noticed that many of the prostitute names were followed by the words "This Rachel".

"" Call Rachel. "It wasn't her real name. just a nickname. So maybe Gaby was his real name, "he explains.

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In Arles of 1888 there were 31 women who could be Gaby.

In Arles in 1888 there were 31 women named Gabrielle or Gaby.

After several dead ends and frustrations, read Bernadette a little known book about Van Gogh: "Rachel, whose name was Gaby, died in 1952 at the age of 80."

Only one Gaby or Gabrielle had died that year at that age.

Was she the van Gogh who saw that night?

The historian managed to discover that her descendants live outside of Arles, and even though the subject was delicate, on condition of anonymity, they confirmed that her predecessor Gabrielle was the one they always called Rachel in Van Gogh's history.

Bernadette also later discovered that Gabrielle I wasn't a prostitute but a girl who not only cleaned the brothel, but also several of Van Gogh's favorite places in Place Lamartine.

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"Night coffee in Plaza Lamartine in Arles" by Vincent Van Gogh. Plaza Lamartine was her favorite place and Gabrielle cleaned several of her cafes.

The girl Van Gogh went to see that the sad night seems to have been a friend, not her prostitute.

A friend as he probably met in Paris, since Bernadette later found evidence that Gabrielle had been sent to the Pasteur Institute in January 1888 to be treated for bites by a rap dog.

He also discovered a letter from Van Gogh mentioning bad girls who were being treated for rage in that institution.

Gabrielle was in Paris for a period of 18 days and returned to Arles. Van Gogh came to that town the following month.

It is possible that Gabrielle was The reason Van Gogh went to Arles. And that suggests a new interpretation of what the fateful night did.

"Van Gogh was always attracted to the people in trouble, wounded angels he wanted to help, and also fed fantasies as the martyrdom of Christ for the poor," Bernadette said.

"It looks as if in his anxiety he is giving his ear to Gaby as an act of self-sacrifice and compassion".

It's hard to prove, but I had already discovered Rachel's identity; One step closer to knowing what happened that night.

A movie discovery

It was in his quest for the truth about the ear that Bernadette made the most extraordinary discovery.

The proof came from the place less expected.

In 1956, MGM launched the film "Lust for life"or" Living ", where Kirk Douglas stars Vincent van Gogh.

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"To be in life" says Vincent Van Gogh's troubles.

His exaggerated soundtrack and dramatic performances cemented in the minds of those who saw the legendary Van Gogh who cut the ear in a madness state.

However, the experts rejected it by noting it as a histrionic version.

Ironically, this was what led Bernadette to a decisive track.

Deep in the archive at the Van Gogh Museum, he found a letter from 1955 in an old magazine.

A reader had Question Time Magazine to have said in an article about Vincent van Gogh that his whole ear had been cut off.

The man insisted that only the gorge was cut, as everyone knew thanks to Paul Signac.

The magazine's editorial office replied that when Irving Stone, the author of the book on which the film was based, investigated the incident in Arles, He visited Dr. Felix Rey.

"Dr. Rey was the only man who still lived who had seen Vincent van Gogh," stressed Bernadette.

And then the letter said something even more extraordinary: "Dr. Rey drew a medical chart for Irving Stone, who later signed and now has Mr. Stone in his possession. "

A witness without equal

Felix Rey was The doctor who treated Van Gogh's injury during their stay in the hospital, and they became such friends as he painted it.

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No better knowing the truth about Van Gogh's ear than Dr. Rey.

It couldn't be better witness of what happened to him to the painter's ear.

And it was possible that it was the document he gave to Hollywood author Irving Stone.

The Irving Stone file is held in Berkeley, California, and Bernadette communicated with archivist David Kessler, trying to track the elusive drawing of Felix Rey.

After several e-mail exchanges without encouraging results, "I asked him to check one last time and I fell asleep."

"The next day there was an email telling me in French: & # 39;Oh, Mom, you are a faithfulé& # 39; ".

"My Unhappy Friend Van Gogh"

Bernadette traveled to San Francisco and burst into tears when Kessler showed him "the small and thin sheet, so eloquent."

"The signature is definitely Dr. Félix Rey, dated August 18, 1930, and it's amazing, that's it a drawing of before and after ".

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Top of Dr. Rey Felix letter with drawing of the ear and the dotted line.

"I'm happy to give you the information you asked me about my unhappy friend Van Gogh"read it there.

"I hope you glorify the genius of this remarkable painter. Warmly, Dr. Rey& # 39; ".

The paper shows the drawing of an ear with a dotted line, and it is said The ear was cut with a razor follows the dotted line.

Then there is another drawing with the appearance of what was left.

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In the lower part was what was left of the ear.

"It documents that the whole ear was removed." It must have been something incredibly painful … what went through his mind at that moment must have been terrible, "Kessler said.

"I've been working on this for a while, and when you see something like that, you realize how terribly terrible it was… the violence in the law, "she said, moved, Bernadette.

Brilliant and tragic

Bernadette Murphy took a copy of the document for verification to the Van Gogh Museum.

The discovery did not allow ambiguity.

Finding new evidence about Van Gogh is strange, and more The final proof that the ear was cut.

But when the emotions disappear, a deeply disturbing story becomes again. It is not an anecdote of trivial art, but an anxious moment for a desperate man.

What happened that night at Casa Amarilla was very disruptive. There he was alone surrounded by all the wonderful paintings that he could not sell.

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Alone and anxious because his dream collapsed and his brother passed away.

He thought of his life, took a razor and cut his ear up and down. He cut the artery behind the ear and later found cloths that he had used to try to stop the blood flow.

But instead of calling a doctor, he hid the wound under a hat and was willing to leave. He wrapped the earmuff in a newspaper and went to a brothel.

  • What the paint Van Gogh painted the day he shot himself says about his suicide

Van Gogh I would finish with their own life only 18 months later.

The bright but tragic year in Arles left us images that electrify the world, and now we can understand much better than the "dangerous madman" and it was "prostitute" who were real and suffering people.

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"Here Vincent van Gogh rests," said the headstone of the brilliant painter, buried next to his brother Theo.

*This article is based on the BBC documentary "The Mystery of Van Gogh's Ear", where the BBC followed Bernadette Murphy in her research. The historian published in 2016 the book "Van Gogh's Ear: The True Story".

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