The Mystery of Van Gogh's Ear

by Danielle Miller and Abigail Mullin

On November 19th, IES and the Bancroft Library were pleased to welcome historian and author Bernadette Murphy for a lecture on Vincent van Gogh's time in Arles, France. Based on her discovery of an important archival document at the Bancroft Library, Murphy’s talk uncovered aspects of the mystery surrounding the night of the artist’s self-harm, when he famously cut off his own ear.

Van Gogh’s time in Arles was marked by both an explosion of artistic creativity—he produced around 200 paintings—and his own mental and physical health decline. Inspired by the serenity and colors of Arles, along with Japanese prints, Van Gogh painted some of his most iconic works there, including Café Terrace at Night, Bedroom in Arles, and portraits of Joseph Roulin. Murphy explained how, throughout her research, several of these paintings offered geographic and social clues about Van Gogh’s whereabouts in the months leading up to his mental breakdown and self-harm.

Furthermore, Murphy investigated the statements and documents left behind by individuals who interacted with Van Gogh in Arles. Some were of questionable accuracy, such as recollections of the painter’s ‘madness’ by Paul Gauguin who had visited Van Gogh in 1888 to offer company and paint alongside him. But others, such as Dr. Félix Rey’s medical sketch of Van Gogh’s severed ear -- the sketch Murphy found in UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library -- provided accurate details. Murphy then explored Van Gogh’s hospitalization in Saint-Rémy, where his asylum residency did not entirely symie his artistic output, despite poor conditions and persistent mental health struggles. In Saint-Rémy, Van Gogh painted his famous “Almond Blossom” piece for his nephew in 1890, along with self-portraits and scenes of the asylum grounds.

The lecture was capped by a lively Q&A with David Faulds (Bancroft curator of Rare Books and Literary Manuscripts) and David Kessler, the now-retired Bancroft staff member whose sleuthing in the archives helped Murphy make her crucial discovery. During the Q&A, Murphy elaborated on her research process and on the lives of some of the subjects of Van Gogh’s paintings. Kessler and Murphy discussed their correspondence over Irving Stone’s archival papers which lay in the Bancroft library, and how Kessler was able to locate the document which revealed that Van Gogh cut off his whole ear. Murphy then answered questions regarding the secrecy of her discovery and the project, as well as the reaction from the community in Arles and the family of the young woman to whom Van Gogh gave his ear. 

This event was co-sponsored by the Department of Art History, the Division of Arts & Humanities, the French Department, and the Townsend Center for the Humanities.