On a cold night of the December of 1888, Vincent Van Gogh cut off his ear. It's perhaps the one fact the world knows about the artist — the man responsible for The Starry Night, a year later. What he saw in the sky for that work, he saw through indescribable pain. A year later, he was dead — from a self-inflicted bullet to the chest. A hundred and twenty eight years later, art teacher Bernadette Murphy found herself living near Arles — the very same city where Van Gogh lost his ear. Murphy was spending her days recovering from ill health and from a teaching job that wasn’t going anywhere. And as she roamed the streets, she allowed herself a question: ‘How much of his ear did Van Gogh cut off?’
Her answer lies several pages deep in her book, Van Gogh’s Ear: The True Story — perhaps the most definitive account of what happened that night. “All I can think is how much blood there must have been. He must have been in so much pain and I can only imagine the extent he had lost his mind to illness,” says Murphy, from Los Angeles. To track down reports and people, Murphy looked hard for traces of the incident from 1888. “I had bits and pieces of information that’s all. I decided to start afresh without any solid leads because I knew I was a nobody. I didn’t know many people in the art circles, I didn’t know people from the publishing world and to claim that I had proof, I needed very solid evidence.
“The newspapers then had reported the incident extensively and over the years, several theories had emerged to explain why he had done it. I looked at none of those and decided to chart my own course.” Through her research, Murphy collected information on over 15,000 people from Van Gogh’s time at Arles — everyone from his maid to the name of the first doctor who treated him after the ear-cutting. The city itself posed a hurdle because Arles was bombed to bits by the Allies during World War II. Nothing she saw in 2009 was from the 19th Century because much of it had undergone an extensive rebuilding programme.
She had to go through old maps of the city, thousands of documents, interviews, photos before discovering an old, withering parchment that had a diagram detailing Van Gogh’s injury. The drawing, by Dr Felix Ray, was discovered within an archive in the United States — 7,000 km away. “It was the evidence I had been waiting for. He had chopped off his entire ear. Could you imagine the pain he must have suffered? It wasn’t the lobe or some small part from the top — it was the full ear,” adds Murphy.
What happened next was even more confounding. Historians claim the troubled artist had then handed the ear over to a prostitute from a nearby brothel. But Murphy’s book claims that wasn’t the case. “She was, in fact, just a maid working to pay off medical bills from a dog-bite treatment. He just came up to her and handed her the gruesome packet. Nineteenth Century Europe was not really a great place for a young girl and it must have been terrifying for her when Van Gogh ‘presented’ her a body part.”
In her interview to DC, Murphy adds that Van Gogh was convinced his ear would somehow “help her”. “I’m not a medical expert but there were traces of the Saviour Complex in him. He wanted to genuinely help people and would go beyond what was normal. Perhaps, it was the way he was brought up, perhaps religion had a role. He had always wanted to become a pastor. Or perhaps, it was just his shattered mind.”
Murphy's book is not a biography. It’s an investigation into one of history’s strangest incidents. In an insane move, a man who himself was circling the drain, had given off an ear to a girl he believed would be “cured” by it. And it took 128 years for us to know that about Van Gogh. “I do hope my book sheds more light into Van Gogh’s life. He drew many of his paintings and wrote many of those wonderful letters while suffering from the full onslaught of an illness that left him very confused, and sad,” says Murphy.