A Clue in the Mystery of Van Gogh's Ear

A drawing by the French doctor who treated the artist may put to rest the question of how much of his ear Van Gogh actually sliced off.  


NEWS BRIEF The story of how Vincent Van Gogh sliced off his ear has always held more than a few mysteries. It was 1888, and he had moved to Arles, France, to start a collective for artists. Paul Gauguin had joined Van Gogh there, and one night in December the two argued––though about what is a mystery. Van Gogh held a razor, and he possibly attacked Gauguin (or perhaps Gauguin attacked him) then in a fit of anger, depression, or hallucination, Van Gogh lopped off part of his ear, wrapped it in cloth, then handed it to a prostitute at a brothel. Among all the unknowns of this story, and Van Gogh’s life, is just how much of his ear he lost that night.

It was long believed Van Gogh cut off the bottom part, just the lobe. This Friday, a new exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum in the Netherlands features a drawing made in 1930 by a doctor who treated the artist. That drawing suggests Van Gogh sliced off nearly his whole ear.

The exhibition is called “On the Verge of Insanity,” and it follows the Dutch painter’s collapse into mental illness, the story of his mutilated ear, and his eventual suicide. One of the exhibit’s most hyped pieces is the drawing by Felix Rey, the young French doctor, which, as the Associated Press tweeted, looked like this:

According to Rey’s drawing, all that remained of Van Gogh’s ear seemed to be a tiny flap of lobe––quite the opposite of what everyone has thought. Two people deserve credit for its discovery. One was Irving Stone, an author, who asked Rey to draw him the picture during his research for a book on Van Gogh’s life. The other person who deserves credit is writer Bernadette Murphy, who rediscovered it in Stone’s archive at the University of California, Berkley’s library.

For those obsessed with Van Gogh, or just morbidly curious, another item featured at the exhibit is a 7mm pocket revolver. It is quite possibly the same one the artist used to shoot himself in the chest in 1890 in the village of Auvers-sur-Oise. It took him two days to die. The weapon was found near the spot in 1960.