Van Gogh’s Ear. The True Story

By Dr Karen Serres , Schroder Foundation Curator of Paintings

As curators, we spend so much time with the collection we care for that it is both rare and exciting when new facts emerge about one of our paintings. This was the case of a few years ago when an independent art historian living near Arles, Bernadette Murphy, came to discuss Vincent van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with a Bandaged Ear. She was undertaking research about van Gogh’s time in Arles, including his network of friends and the specific timeline of events following his notorious dispute with Gauguin that led to the mutilation of his ear. She had fascinating things to say about the Self-Portrait, painted just a few days after van Gogh left the hospital. She talked about the novelty of the dressing used to heal his wounded ear, about van Gogh’s adoption of the heavy coat traditionally worn by shepherds in the region and about the room in which van Gogh stood, the ground floor studio of his little house in Arles. To paint this self-portrait, Van Gogh may have used the very mirror he looked into to cut off his ear a few weeks earlier.

Van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1889) Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889 © The Courtauld Gallery, London

Bernadette’s research is now encompassed in a book, out today, called Van Gogh’s Ear. The True Story. It considers Van Gogh’s stay in the south of France in forensic details and unpicks a lot of the myths created and repeated around Van Gogh’s self-mutilation, including the nature of his wound. Until now, most accounts have trusted the painter Paul Signac who asserted that Van Gogh cut off a portion of the lobe of his left ear. Bernadette tracked down early sources, such as newspaper accounts and first-hand testimony, to prove that in fact the painter cut off his entire ear. She also argues that he survived such a wound thanks to the intervention of Felix Rey (whose portrait by Van Gogh is in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow), a young doctor who had recently come to Arles and was trained in new treatment techniques.

The book is a testament to Bernadette’s resolve during a seven-year quest and to the fact that the most unexpected avenues of research can yield the greatest rewards. It also shows that there is still light to be shed on even the most scrutinized of episodes.

Bernadette’s findings are also included in an illuminating exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam that examines all the manifestations and theories surrounding van Gogh’s mental illness, On the Verge of Insanity. It opens a much-needed dialogue between art historians and medical professionals to understand the nature and extent of van Gogh’s illness, but also to counter the idea that he was simply a slave to his demons. Van Gogh was a willful and deliberate artist that shaped his world on the canvas and created works of art that resonate more than ever with viewers.

The Courtauld: First for Impressionists

This summer, you might have spotted our First for Impressionists campaign if you’ve been travelling by tube..

First for Impressionists tube campaign

Or train…

First for Impressionists train campaign

Or maybe you’ve spotted our beautiful new banner and shop windows outside Somerset House…

The Courtauld Gallery Shop - Strand entrance

We also now also have a lovely new video featuring our Curator of Paintings Dr Karen Serres as she discusses our world famous collection of Impressionist paintings – starring Monet, Degas, Gauguin and Van Gogh amongst many others.


Spotlight on a Masterpiece: Van Gogh's Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear

In the first in a new series of posts, we’ll be uncovering the history, stories and trivia behind masterpieces in The Courtauld’s permanent collection.

This month we are looking at Vincent van Gogh’s Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear

The artist Paul Gauguin joined van Gogh in the town of Arles in November 1888, to paint together in what van Gogh called the ‘studio of the south’, but they quickly started to quarrel.

Van Gogh had hoped to set up a thriving community of like-minded artists, of which he and Gauguin would be the first.

After an argument with Gauguin in December 1888, van Gogh famously mutilated his ear.

This disagreement signalled the end of van Gogh’s dream, and his disappointment is evident in this stark self-portrait; one of the first paintings he produced after his release from hospital in January 1889.

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889 © The Courtauld Gallery, London

Van Gogh’s disagreement with Gauguin was grounded on a dispute over whether the artist should work from nature or from the imagination.

Gauguin felt that an over-reliance on the external world marked a lack of creativity, whilst van Gogh drew rich meanings from his observation of nature.

This particular painting is clearly grounded in observation with the subject illuminated by clear daylight and exposed by contrasting colours and textures, and in this way it differs greatly from Gauguin’s simplified and abstract technique.

Notice the almost blank canvas to the left contrasted against the vibrant Japanese colour print to the right.

Coupled with the prominent bandage over the artist’s ear, this contrast seems to suggest a present fear of creative drought compared with hopeful dreams of the past.

It’s also worth noting that the colours you see today are in fact different from the colours that van Gogh originally chose.

Research at The Courtauld has revealed that the paints used by the artist were so cheap that their colour has gradually changed over the years.