Is it true that Van Gogh severed both of his ears, or was only a portion of one ear removed?

A sketch by the artist's doctor demonstrating that Van Gogh had severed almost all of his ear was a major revelation in Bernadette Murphy's book Van Gogh's Ear: the True Story, published four years ago. It was drawn in 1930 as a note for American author Irving Stone by Dr. Félix Rey, who treated Vincent van Gogh in the hospital in Arles in 1888. Stone was working on his best-selling novel Lust for Life at the time.

It was widely believed that Van Gogh had only severed a portion of his ear late on the evening of December 23, 1888, at the Yellow House, but this was before Murphy's meticulously researched book on the artist's 15 months in Arles. After an argument with his friend and fellow artist Paul Gauguin, Vincent cut off a piece of Gauguin's ear and took it to a local brothel to give to a woman. The Van Gogh Museum's official website on the artist's letters now confirms Murphy's finding, saying, "He did indeed cut off his entire ear." And yet, how accurate was Dr. Rey's sketch? How crucial is this to the Van Gogh biography, if at all

Dated August 18, 1930, Félix Rey included a sketch of Vincent van Gogh's amputated ear in a note to Irving Stone. Used with permission from the Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley

If Van Gogh was in such a disturbed state that he severely mutilated himself, then perhaps it doesn't matter if he cut off his entire ear or just a portion of it. Though knowing the severity of his wound would be instructive in and of itself. If the ear was removed in its entirety, Van Gogh likely intended to inflict as much harm as possible, including death. A more urgent call for aid might have been made if only a small portion of the ear had been severed.

Despite the macabre nature of the subject, let's take a look at the testimonies of the most important people involved. First, let's hear from the people who say it was only a piece of the ear, which was the widely held theory up until fairly recently.

Sister-in-law Jo Bonger mentioned that Vincent "cut off a piece of his ear" in her memoirs back in 1914. She first met Vincent during his four-day stay at her family's Paris apartment in May 1890, and she later saw him again for brief visits in June and July of that year. Seeing her brother-in-law with the scars must have been extremely upsetting for her, and she likely wouldn't be able to forget it. In light of the artist's tragic death, however, she may have had an interest in downplaying the loss's significance.

Artist Paul Signac spent the day with Van Gogh in Arles three months after the mutilation. It was "the lobe of the ear (not the ear)" he wrote to the critic Gustave Coquiot in 1921. Signac could not have seen the full extent of Van Gogh's loss, as he was obscured by "the famous headband and cap," which the artist wore, according to the story. However, by that time, the wound would have healed, and Van Gogh probably wouldn't have been wearing a bandage. Signac may be thinking of Van Gogh's self-portraits with bandaged ear when he mentions the headband and cap, rather than his actual encounter with the artist.

Similarly, Dr. Paul Gachet's son, Paul Gachet Jr. (Van Gogh's closest friend in Auvers-sur-Oise and the man who helped care for him after the shooting), had replied to Coquiot's questions. While "it was not all the ear," he did say, "it was a good part of the outside of the ear (more than the lobe)." When asked to describe the size of the hole, he wrote to two other authors in the 1930s that it was "not all the ear but a bit more than the lobe." During Van Gogh's ten weeks in Auvers, Gachet Jr. — who was only 17 at the time — saw the artist on multiple occasions, and seeing such a terrible scar must have been traumatic for a young person. His father, who passed away in 1909, would have also told him stories about the incident.

This trio of eyewitnesses remembers it as a segment of the ear, but others think it was the entire ear.

A few hours before the incident, Gauguin had fled to a hotel, but he returned the following morning, right before the police arranged for Van Gogh to be taken to the hospital. On his second day back in Paris, Gauguin had a brief conversation with his friend and fellow artist Emile Bernard. Gauguin echoed Bernard's observation that Van Gogh "cut his ear clean through" in his memoirs from 1901, which he wrote to the critic Albert Aurier. It's unlikely that Gauguin could have accurately assessed how much of Van Gogh's ear was lost during his brief encounter with the injured artist because the wound would have been roughly covered with a sheet and blood would have pooled around and on top of it.

Alphonse Robert, a police officer who investigated the crime, wrote in 1929 that it was "the entire ear." Others who were there at the time and newspaper articles from 1888 mention that Van Gogh severed "the ear," but it is unclear if he actually cut off the entire ear or just a portion of it.

Dr. Félix Rey by Vincent van Gogh (1889). The Pushkin Museum in Moscow, Russia

What then, should we make of Dr. Rey's 1930 sketch? Since he treated the wound, he should be a credible witness; as a physician, he should provide accurate descriptions of the medical situation; and he knew the artist and had a friendly relationship with him. Dr. Rey wrote to Vincent's brother Theo a week after the incident, saying that his patient had been unable to explain why he had "cut off his ear" (though this phraseology does not necessarily mean that it was the entire ear).

However, by the 1920s, it was clear that Van Gogh's worldwide fame and local notoriety in Arles were beginning to distort the doctor's memories of the artist.

Max Braumann, an art historian, and Julius Seyler, an artist, were interviewed in 1928, and their conversation does not exactly inspire confidence. Since Van Gogh "painted with his thumb," Dr. Rey called him "a miserable, pitiful man, small of stature" who always wore an overcoat, "smeared with colors." This doesn't seem right, since Van Gogh's best friend Bernard said in a letter written a year after his death that Van Gogh was "of medium height, stocky but not excessively." The only tool Van Gogh ever used that wasn't a brush or a palette knife was his finger.

Dr. Rey preserved the severed ear in alcohol and wrote about it in a letter the following year, saying that he had been given the ear the day after the incident but that "it was too late to try to reattach it in place." After keeping it for a while, the ear mysteriously vanished from his office in Paris.

In the 1920s, doctors Victor Doiteau and Edgar Leroy contacted the few key witnesses who were still alive and wrote the most detailed early accounts of Van Gogh's medical condition. In a comprehensive article published in 1936, they came to the conclusion that the top half, or so, of the ear had been cut off.

Ultimately, it is frustrating that there is insufficient evidence to determine the full extent of the mutilation. Depending on how close they were to Van Gogh and whether they wanted to portray him as more sane or not, many of the witnesses may have had an interest in either downplaying or exaggerating the loss.

After reviewing the available evidence, I am of the opinion that it was most, if not all, of the ear.

Finally, some related Van Gogh information

As a result of the coronavirus outbreak, the opening of the exhibition Laura Owens & Vincent van Gogh at the Fondation Vincent van Gogh Arles on May 16 has been pushed back to spring 2021. Los Angeles artist Owens, who was influenced by Van Gogh, will be exhibiting there.

• The Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, which houses the second-greatest collection of Van Gogh works in the world, has just released its first book, which reproduces the museum's entire collection of 88 paintings and 180 works on paper in full color. With only a few paragraphs of text, Vincent van Gogh: All Works in the Kröller-Müller Museum is a great picture book for the price.

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