Friday, January 1, 2010

Found: the clue to van Gogh’s ear

Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889 by Vincent van Gogh (1853-90)

Found: the clue to van Gogh’s ear

The mystery behind the most famous mutilation in art history may finally have been solved.

A scholar has found evidence that a distraught Vincent van Gogh slashed his ear after learning that his brother, Theo, on whom he depended financially and emotionally, was about to get married.

Martin Bailey, who has written a book on van Gogh and curated two exhibitions of his work, devised his theory after meticulous detective work on a letter in a painting that the artist completed soon after he injured himself.

Bailey concludes that this letter was written by Theo from Paris in December 1888 and contained news of his engagement. This, he believes, tipped Vincent, who was already psychologically disturbed, into self-harm.

For years disputes have raged over what really happened to van Gogh’s ear just before Christmas 1888. Some have blamed his mental illness, others have said he was driven mad by lead in his paints. The breakdown of his friendship with Paul Gauguin, his fellow artist, has also been cited, although it is claimed that Gauguin made up this story himself.

Academics at Hamburg University argued recently that Gauguin, with whom van Gogh shared a house at Arles in the south of France, cut the ear in a quarrel over a prostitute called Rachel.

This theory was dismissed by the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam and by Bailey.

Van Gogh gave ample evidence of his mental instability when, 19 months after the ear was cut, he shot himself in the chest and died from his wounds two days later.

Bailey assembled his evidence partly from close study of van Gogh’s Still Life: Drawing Board with Onions. The work was completed at the beginning of 1889, just a month after his injury. It will be the star painting at a new exhibition opening in January at the Royal Academy around the theme of van Gogh and his letters.

It includes an envelope on a table. Bailey examined it microscopically and found the number 67 inside a circle. This was the official mark of a post office in Place des Abbesses, close to the apartment in Montmartre occupied by Theo, an art dealer who regularly provided money for Vincent.

The envelope has a special frank mark that says “New Year’s Day”. The Paris postal museum confirmed that in the second half of the 19th century such a mark was put on envelopes from mid-December onwards.

Bailey believes van Gogh deliberately put the envelope in the painting because of its deep significance.

Vincent usually received his allowance from Theo on or about the 23rd of each month, although sometimes he received two a month. It is known from a letter he wrote to Theo at the end of January 1889 that he had received what he called “the much-needed money” on December 23.

Bailey argues that the letter in the painting contained the news from Theo that he had proposed to his girlfriend, Johanna Bonger. The letter, dated December 21, is from Theo to his mother seeking permission to marry. “Vincent would surely have been next to be told,” said Bailey.

Another letter, from Theo to his fiancée, mentions his brief visit to Vincent on Christmas Day after he had taken the train from Paris on hearing of the mutilation.

Theo wrote: “When I mentioned you to him he evidently knew who and what I meant and, when I asked whether he approved of our plans, he said marriage ought not to be regarded as the main object in life.”

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