The true story of the world’s most famous ear

When was the last time you gave serious thought to your ears?

I confess to taking mine for granted. But think where I’d be without them? I’d have nowhere to rest my glasses – I’d be forced to wear Poirot-style pince-nez, but I don’t recall a huge selection last time I was in Specsavers.

There’s only one story I can think of where an ear made the headlines. Or, to be more precise, its absence caused a furore. I refer, of course, to the Christmas Eve 1888 incident involving Vincent Van Gogh. What I had not realised until recently was the degree of controversy around what really happened that night in the pretty Provencal town of Arles. More than a century later, the locals are still dining out on the story. As Daphne and I discovered when we pedalled into Arles as part of a cycling holiday last summer.

The seed of curiosity was planted and could only be satisfied by the recent purchase of Bernadette Murphy’s definitive 2016 tome, ‘Van Gogh’s Ear – The True Story’.  With notes and bibliography it stretches to 320 pages, so I can only give you edited highlights here.  Issue number one is who done it. There’s a school of thought that believes his fellow artist and accomplished swordsman, Paul Gaugin, did the deed in a single stroke for reasons unknown. Murphy is not buying this version.

We must remember that the building in Arles with which Vincent had grown most familiar was not his workshop in the Yellow House but the local asylum. Her conclusion is that Vincent, during one of his all too frequent mental breakdowns, looked in the mirror, took hold of his cut-throat razor and lopped off most of his right ear. He then wrapped it in newspaper and went to the local brothel where he presented it as a gift to a working girl called Rachel and asked her to take care of it.

The only problem was, there’s an important artery just above your ear, and Vincent had pierced it. There was blood everywhere and he was in real danger of bleeding to death. He had collapsed into his bed and was only discovered and taken to hospital the next day. The infamous ear, which Rachel had declined to keep, was already withered from sclerosis so could not be sewn back on.  The hospital in Arles was primitive, but thankfully he was under the care of Dr Felix Rey who was up to speed with the latest method of disinfecting a wound. Rather than rinsing it in polluted water from the Rhone or cauterising it with a hot poker, he applied an oil-silk dressing or ‘Lister’ made of fine silk taffeta soaked in oil and a weak carbolic acid (phenol) solution. Van Gogh’s ear was lost, but his life was saved.

Meanwhile Gaugin had originally been arrested as a suspect by the police, then released so he could send a telegram to Vincent’s brother Theo, a leading art dealer in Paris. It may have been 1888 but you could still send a telegram from sleepy Arles and have it arrive in the capital within the hour. Theo took the night train to Arles and arrived at lunchtime on Christmas Day. Gaugin was his client and took him to the hospital but refused to enter. After a brief visit it was clear that Vincent’s life was not in danger but his mental health was deteriorating.

Van Gogh ended up strapped to his bed in the isolation ward of Arles hospital and papers were drawn up for him to be transferred to the asylum at Aix. Unexpectedly, by early January he had become more lucid and was allowed to return to the Yellow House. Brother Theo could get on with planning his upcoming marriage and having regular meetings with Edgar Degas and Paul Gaugin.

For a man who only took up painting in 1881, it seems incredible that the two years from this disfiguring episode to his suicide in July 1890 would be his most prolific and form the bedrock on which his post-impressionist reputation would be built in the 20th century. It beggars belief that someone destined to become one of the all-time greats only sold one painting in his lifetime.

Join us at the Royal Academy of Art

Next month we are partnering with art expert Aidan Meller to launch Meller Art Club. If you find art history fascinating and want to combine deepening knowledge with some outstanding investment opportunities, join us at the Royal Academy of Art (left) on the evening of Thursday 27th September. Click here for full details.

Until next time.