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.
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.