New Van Gogh Letter Confirms Artist Cut Off Entire Ear

Van Gogh

The first exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam to focus on the artist’s state of mental health, ‘On the Verge of Insanity: Van Gogh and his Illness’, opens on Friday 15 July. The show explores the nature of the condition that led him to first cut off his ear and then ultimately commit suicide. Some 25 paintings and drawings from the final year and a half of the painter’s life that tell the story of his battle with illness are shown alongside original documents, including a recently discovered letter from his doctor, Félix Rey, which contains drawings that reveal Van Gogh cut off his entire ear, not just part of it as previously thought. Important loans from international museums include the portrait he made of Dr Rey, a masterpiece from the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, and visitors will also see the police report and petition organised by Van Gogh’s neighbours in Arles in 1889 to have him committed. The revolver found in the field in Auvers-sur-Oise where Van Gogh shot himself, likely to be the weapon he used to take his own life, is also on display for the first time as part of the exhibition that runs from 15 July until 25 September 2016.

In the final eighteen months of his life, Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) was plagued by a sporadic and unpredictable illness that changed his life fundamentally. Each new episode left the artist utterly confused and unable to work for days and sometimes weeks at a time. Between attacks, he was lucid and continued to paint and draw as much as ever. Work seemed his only lifeline, the best remedy in his struggle with illness. On the Verge of Insanityshows that Van Gogh’s artistic production occurred in spite of rather than as product of his illness. Paintings, drawings and documents are used to inform visitors about the key moments in Van Gogh’s medical history, examining the various diagnoses suggested by doctors over the years, showing how people around the painter responded to his illness, and questioning the extent to which his mental condition influenced his work.

The ‘ear incident’, through which Van Gogh’s illness manifested itself in December 1888 while he was living in the southern French town of Arles, is reconstructed in the exhibition through eyewitness testimony and letters. An exceptional loan is the recently discovered letter from Félix Rey, the doctor who treated Van Gogh in the hospital. It was found in an American archive by Bernadette Murphy, while researching her book Van Gogh’s Ear: the True Story. Rey’s letter includes drawings showing that Van Gogh cut off the whole of his left ear and not, as was long believed, just part of it. The discovery brings an end to a long-standing biographical question. The letter is exhibited alongside Van Gogh’s portrait of Dr Rey, which the artist gave the physician as a token of gratitude for his care, now in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow and being shown at the Van Gogh Museum for the first time.

The Portrait of Dr Rey hangs in the exhibition alongside Still Life with a Plate of Onions(Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo), which Van Gogh painted immediately after his discharge from hospital. He tried to pick up the threads of his life, but further breakdowns and hospital admissions swiftly followed. Several important documents from the Arles municipal archives, never previously exhibited elsewhere, provide an insight into Van Gogh’s mental state and the difficult situation in which he found himself. Local residents, for instance, organised a petition to have him incarcerated, and compulsory hospitalisation was considered. In the end, Van Gogh decided in May 1889 to have himself voluntarily admitted to the asylum in nearby Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, where he would remain for a year. Paintings and drawings from this period, including The Garden of the Asylum and The Enclosed Wheatfield in Saint-Rémy after a Storm (both in the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam), show how he wrestled with his illness and turned to his work as a lifeline to keep him from going under.

The exhibition also focuses in detail on the circumstances of Van Gogh’s death by his own hand in the northern French village of Auvers-sur-Oise on 29 July 1890. The exhibition includes his final painting, Tree Roots, and the portrait of Van Gogh on his deathbed drawn by Dr Paul-Ferdinand Gachet (both Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam). The small, badly corroded revolver (private collection), which is also being shown for the first time, might be the weapon with which Van Gogh sought to end his life. It was found around 1960 in Auvers by a farmer working on his land. It is a small calibre, 7mm pocket revolver of the ‘Lefaucheux à broche’ type, which was found in the fields behind the chateau in Auvers where Van Gogh shot himself. The degree of corrosion suggests that the weapon lay in the ground for 50–60 years; its limited firepower offers a possible explanation for why a bullet fired at such close range nonetheless glanced off a rib, as recorded by Dr Gachet. The bullet was deflected downwards and was lodged too deep to be removed without danger, as a result of which Van Gogh died of his wound some 30 hours later.

The exhibition On the Verge of Madness has extended opening hours and can be visited from Friday 15 July to Sunday 4 September, daily from 9 am to 7 pm, and Fridays to 10 pm and Saturdays until 9 am. The opening times from Monday 5 September to Sunday 25 September are daily from 9 am to 6 pm, and Fridays to 10 pm.