Solved: the mystery of Van Gogh’s missing ear
It is one of the most violent and notorious acts of self-harm in history. But what exactly happened to Van Gogh’s left ear? And does the greatest art really come from the worst suffering?
If you were asked to name a fact about Vincent Van Gogh, it is extremely likely that you would say one of two things: (1) He painted sunflowers. (2) He cut off his own ear and gave it to a prostitute.
It happened on the starry night of December 23rd 1888, in one of the darkest moments of Van Gogh’s life. According to accounts from the time, the ear was wrapped up in newspaper and delivered to a nearby brothel. Van Gogh’s memories were often ‘vague’ after a breakdown — so when he learned of what he had done, he was filled with shame, and he put himself in the care of Dr Félix Rey.
But how much of his ear remained? And who was the woman at the brothel who fainted when he told her to ‘keep this object carefully’?
Until recently, scholars believed that Van Gogh only cut off his earlobe. But in a new book, the author Bernadette Murphy reveals a long-lost diagram which was drawn by Dr Rey in 1930. It shows that almost the entire ear was severed in a shocking, heartbreaking act of self-harm.
Murphy also has a theory about the woman who received it. She was not a prostitute at all, but a maid named Gabrielle who had been through a traumatic event which left her with ‘nasty’ scars. ‘There’s something semireligious to the way he offers a part of his body to repair a part of her body,’ Murphy says.
Her research will go on display at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam tomorrow. It forms part of a new exhibition which explores how the artist’s anguish affected his work in the final years of his life — one and a half years after the ear incident, he walked out into a cornfield and committed suicide.
The stereotype of the ‘mad genius’ has lingered throughout history. Various studies have connected creativity with mental illness, and the past is full of suffering artists: ‘We of the craft are all crazy,’ the poet Lord Byron once said.
But few embody the idea more than Van Gogh himself, who once wrote that ‘I put my heart and my soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process.’
Intense creativity comes at a price — or so the theory goes. By wrestling with his demons and drawing on his deepest emotions, Van Gogh was able to express something on canvas that changed the art world for good; he still captivates us now. His illness was a tragedy — but the work that emerged will be cherished forever.
But some question this interpretation. During his darkest periods, Van Gogh was paralysed with depression and completely unable to paint. His illness was not an inspiration, they say — it cost him his life and deprived the world of a beautiful gift. We must stop encouraging the myth that suffering is good for art when clearly the opposite is true.
- What emotions inspire you to write, dance, sing or draw?
- Is mental illness linked to creativity?
- Produce a piece of art which is inspired by an experience in your past.
- Choose your favourite Van Gogh picture and write a paragraph imagining what the artist was thinking as he painted it.
Some People Say...
“I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.”Vincent Van Gogh
What do you think?
Q & A
- Why does it matter how much of his ear went missing?
- It is an interesting addition to a well-known story. But if Dr Rey’s diagram is accurate, it serves as a reminder that this was not just a story: it was a bloody and gruesome act, one which may have been even more horrible than historians first thought.
- I’ve not suffered much. Does that mean I’m not creative?
- Absolutely not. In fact, psychologists say that people are generally more creative when they are in a positive mood. Mental illness should not be romanticised; it is far more important to have a vital curiosity and a good imagination.
- I’m suffering with my mental health. What should I do?
- Make sure you talk to someone, and ask for help from a doctor if you think you cannot cope. Visit youngminds.org.uk for more help and support.
- The paintings in the sunflower series were groundbreaking for their use of many different shades of yellow. Painted throughout 1888–89, they showed the flowers in all stages of life.
- It is not clear what mental illness Van Gogh suffered from. His symptoms included depression, anxiety, erratic behaviour, hallucinations and memory loss. Some theories include bipolar, temporal lobe epilepsy and borderline personality disorder.
- Dr Félix Rey
- Dr Rey later claimed that he kept the ear, until it was stolen, in a jar in his office.
- Committed suicide
- Van Gogh shot himself in the chest and died 30 hours later on July 29th 1890. A small rusty gun was found in the field in 1960, and is thought to be the weapon he used. It will go on display alongside Dr Rey’s diagram.
- In 2015 a study from Iceland found people in creative jobs 25% more likely to carry a genetic risk of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. However, other scientists criticised its evidence.
- Lord Byron
- A lover, Lady Caroline Lamb, described the 19th-century poet as ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’.