How One Art History Teacher Solved Two of the Biggest Mysteries about Van Gogh

Abigail Cain
Jul 26, 2016 7:57AM

It started with a nagging question: How much of his own ear did Vincent van Gogh actually cut off?

Bernadette Murphy couldn’t get it out of her head. Perhaps it was because she lived just a few hours away from Arles—the French town where the storied ear incident played out one cold December night—and often ventured there with friends or family. Perhaps it was the kinship she felt with van Gogh, also an outsider among the insular communities of rural France. Or perhaps it was simply that she liked a good puzzle.

Whatever the reason, the question stuck with her. And in 2009, when health problems forced Murphy to take time off her teaching job, she finally began to search for the answer. But the more she dug, the more questions she had: Who was the prostitute to whom van Gogh supposedly gifted his severed ear? While travelling to Arles, why did the painter catch a train that dropped him off ten miles from his destination when he was weighed down with supplies?

It was these “bits and pieces,” Murphy told Artsy, “that led me into looking at the whole story again like a detective might. The whole point was to take nothing as fact—to play the devil's advocate and go over the story all over again.”

Van Gogh’s biography—particularly the final years of his life—has always been riddled with inconsistencies. Even painter Paul Gauguin, who briefly lived with van Gogh in the Yellow House, offered two conflicting accounts of what he saw on the fateful night of December 23, 1888. When Murphy began her research, the Van Gogh Museum’s official statement read that van Gogh cut off part of his left ear with a razor that day. A competing account from two German art historians in 2009 argued instead that Gauguin actually lopped off his colleague’s earlobe with a sword during a heated argument.  

In starting her research, Murphy unwittingly reopened this cold case. “At the start, perhaps I was a bit naïve,” she said. “I didn't realize how many other people had worked on it.” Lacking formal training as a historian—Murphy is an educator with a degree in art history—she took an unconventional approach. She avoided the numerous texts that had already been written on the subject, starting instead from scratch. “In the beginning, all the discoveries I made were my own,” she recalled.

Her search began at the scene of the crime. But the archive in Arles contained only a handful of documents relating directly to the French painter’s life. There were no police reports of the ear incident, no records of van Gogh renting a house; there wasn’t even census data from 1891. “They had nothing,” Murphy explained. “It was like a soufflé that didn't rise. It was one of these things where you just went, ‘Oh, God, is this all you have?’” She realized that, to make headway, she would have to widen her scope.


Murphy’s previous research experience was personal. Her greatest inquiry thus far had come years earlier when she traced back her Irish ancestry, compiling a database of each person in the family tree. She decided to apply the same approach to Arles, beginning with the individuals who resided in van Gogh’s neighborhood when the fateful ear-lopping occurred. To date, Murphy has gathered records on more than 15,000 people. They range from van Gogh’s cleaning lady to the town’s Protestant pastor.

But there was another problem: Arles today bears little resemblance to the Arles van Gogh knew. An Allied bombing of the French village during World War II was followed by an extensive rebuilding program. So Murphy and an advising architect combed through old maps, land registries, and rare early photographs, eventually reconstructing a detailed map of pre-war Arles.

These initial steps provided an essential foundation for the project. But the most fateful clue in Murphy’s inquiry was the discovery of a small slip of paper, not much bigger than her hand. She was led there by an unlikely string of documents that spanned continents—a trail that ended in Berkeley, California, where the archive of novelist Irving Stone can be found.

Stone authored Lust for Life, the 1934 fictionalized biography of van Gogh that cemented the painter’s celebrity status in the wider public’s imagination. In 1955, as the book was being adapted into a movie, LIFE magazine published an article noting that van Gogh had cut off his entire ear. A reader wrote back, contesting the assertion; the editors responded to that letter with a note of their own. In the note, which Murphy uncovered in an Amsterdam archive, the editors referenced a diagram drawn for Stone by one Félix Rey. Murphy recognized the name immediately: Rey was the first person to treat van Gogh when he arrived at the hospital in Arles. She reread the sentence again and again. “Oh my God,” she recalled thinking. “If that document still exists, I have to find it.”

In the course of her research, Murphy had already reached out to Stone’s archives, but they found nothing of interest. Bolstered by this new information, she asked again, this time with the details about the diagram. In an email, Stone’s archivist replied, “I find it pretty inconceivable that the material would be there.” But he agreed to take a second look.

Murphy awoke the next morning to an email in French from the archivist that read: “You won’t believe this, but I found the document you’re looking for!!!” Folded in half and tucked into a folder, the sheet from the doctor’s prescription pad featured two diagrams detailing exactly where van Gogh had sliced his ear. There it was. A definitive answer to a question that had confounded researchers and biographers for over a century. Murphy began to shake.

Left: Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Dr Félix Rey, oil on canvas, January 1889. The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow; Right: Letter from Félix Rey to Irving Stone with drawings of Vincent van Gogh’s mutilated ear, 18 August 1930. The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. Images courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam.

Murphy kept the crucial piece of evidence secret for more than five years. It now serves as the centerpiece for her recently released book Van Gogh’s Ear: The True Story, as well as an upcoming BBC documentary. The sheet of prescription pad is also on display at the Van Gogh Museum as a part of its current exhibition, “On the Verge of Insanity.”

Murphy describes the discovery as the “motor” that drove the rest of her research, which also identified the girl to whom van Gogh gave his ear, yet another mystery in the artist’s biography that had stumped historians for over a century. Long assumed to be a prostitute named Rachel, it turns out that she was actually a maid in a brothel whose given name was Gabrielle Berlatier.

Perhaps the most surprising part of the story, however, was Murphy’s initial attitude towards van Gogh. “I hope it doesn’t shock people to say that I didn’t particularly like van Gogh. He was a bit ‘old hat’ to me,” she said. “But as the story goes on and you read his letters and think about how he was struggling with mental illness, you become attached to the man. How could you not?”

Abigail Cain