Culture

The Mystery Of Vincent Van Gogh’s Ear Has Been Solved

by Jordan Crucchiola

July 12, 2016

Over the course of our lives, a great many mysteries will remain unsolved. Is there intelligent life somewhere else in the cosmos? Why are we here? Will Donald Trump just wake up one day, suddenly in the shape of a square, and spend the rest of his days as a Cheez-It? But if you've always been curious about exactly how artist Vincent Van Gogh managed to cut off his ear, you're in luck--the mystery's been solved.

This new information came to light after a British author named Bernadette Murphy reached out to the University of California, Berkeley on a hunch that its Bancroft Library contained a doctor’s note describing the exact nature of his self-inflicted wound. And it turns out that Murphy, who was doing research for her new book Van Gogh’s Ear: The True Story, was correct.

A drawing of the ear, which shows it as almost completely severed but for a small portion of the lobe, was found in the archive of another author, Irving Stone, who wrote a fictionalized biography about the artist called Lust for Life. The letter, signed by Félix Rey, a physician who greatly admired Van Gogh, reads,

“I’m happy to be able to give you the information you have requested concerning my unfortunate friend Van Gogh. I sincerely hope that you won’t fail to glorify the genius of this remarkable painter, as he deserves.

Cordially yours,

Dr Rey”

The letter will be on display for the first time at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam for its new exhibition, “On The Verge of Insanity,” which explores the Impressionist painter’s struggle with mental illness. There will also be a BBC documentary called Van Gogh’s Ear based on Murphy’s book.

But at least one historian is saying nay to the finding. Steven Naifeh, who wrote the book Van Gogh: The Life, told The New York Times, “I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, that they had indeed found new information from Rey, but it is not new, and it is not credible.”

In Naifeh’s book, which came out in 2011, he asserts that Dr. Rey and several other witnesses saw Van Gogh’s ear after the incident and said that only a small portion was missing. According to his book, the injury was mild enough that, “when Vincent was seen from face-on, the damage could go unnoticed.”

In a video about the finding from UC Berkeley, the Bancroft Library’s curator of rare books and literary manuscripts, David Faulds, says the note from Dr. Rey, “Ends decades of dispute about how much of Van Gogh’s ear he actually cut off.” And Naifeh may disagree, but the framed drawing will still be going on display at the painter’s eponymous museum this month.

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The Mystery Of Vincent Van Gogh’s Ear Has Been Solved