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DR. RITA WILDEGANS
Van Goghs Ohr
Ein Corpusculum als Corpus Delicti

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BREDEKAMP, HORST. Curiosa Poliphili. Festgabe für Horst Bredekamp.
Hrsg. von Nicole Hegener, Claudia Lichte & Bettina Marten.
Leipzig 2007.
256 S. mit 100 Abb., Ppbd.

Die Festschrift zum 60. Geburtstag vereint 30 Beiträge von ehemaligen Schülern
des Kunsthistorikers, Professor für Kunstgeschichte an der Humboldt-Universität
zu Berlin.

 

Dr. Rita Wildegans

VAN GOGH’S EAR

The Corpus Delicti Is a Corpuscle

 

Translation: Julie Penzell Althoff

 

 

In art-historical research the question of whether Vincent van Gogh’s self-mutilation involves an ear or just an earlobe is of marginal importance. Hence, this issue is treated either controversially or rather carelessly. The descriptions of where and what was actually severed in Arles on 23 December 1888 alternate between the left and right ear, the entire ear, part of an ear or an earlobe, or – until now the ultimate degree of speculation – part of a lobe.1 Even an internationally recognized publication toys with various versions of this regrettable incident without committing itself to any particular version, thereby showing the incident’s relative insignificance for historical research.2 When describing portraits, ears are not necessarily always disregarded as a matter of principle. The same could justifiably be postulated for the circumstances surrounding the loss of an organ of hearing, all the more so as it involved an event that was not without consequences in the life of a well-known and beloved artist. Nevertheless, critical evaluation of the facts associated with this incident appears to be of no interest to art historians and for more than a century has been either scrupulously avoided or dismissed as secondary. All the same, the question of whether an ear or an earlobe were the object of the artist’s reported act of auto-aggression may serve as the basis for further hypotheses and, thus, very well be of importance.3

 

The confusion and inaccuracies began in 1914 with the three-volume edition of Vincent van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo published by Johanna van Gogh-Bongers.4 A detailed biography of the van Gogh family, particularly Vincent’s tragic personal circumstances, serves as a preamble to the publication. In large measure the preamble is unreliable and not always able to stand up to scientific criteria, but it remains to the present day the foundation for many other van Gogh biographies. These, however, are not immune to the accusation that they suffer a certain collective blindness, even if the truth behind the biographical sketch of this family member is neither questioned nor examined and regarded as authentic. In her honorable efforts to smooth out the family history Johanna van Gogh-Bonger was demonstrably unable to resist the temptation to either disregard, re-interpret or play down some events.5 Her portrayal of the ear incident reads as follows and I quote: “In a moment of extreme agitation – “un accès de fièvre chaude,” as Vincent later calls it himself – Vincent cut off a piece of one ear and gave it to one of the girls at the whorehouse.”6 Initially, this statement remained undisputed.

 

In another van Gogh biography published in 1923, author Gustave Coquiot cites artist Paul Signac, who had visited Vincent van Gogh in Arles thirty-four years earlier, as stating that the accident which occurred on 23 December 1888 involved an earlobe, referring to Johanna van Gogh-Bonger as a principal witness: “Cependant Paul Signac bravement vint le voir. Voici le récit de cette visite: ‘J’ai revu Vincent, nous a-t-il dit, la dernière fois à Arles, au printemps de 1889. Il était déjà à l’hospice de cette ville. Quelques jours auparavant il s’était coupé le lobe de l’oreille (et non l’oreille) dans les circonstances que vous savez. (Mme. J. van Gogh-Bonger affirme, elle aussi, que le lobe seul de l’oreille fut coupé). Mais le jour de ma visite il était plein de raison et l’interne me permit de sortir avec lui. Il avait le fameux bandeau et la casquette de fourrure. ’”7 It is a proven fact that Paul Signac’s visit to Arles took place on 23 March 1889, however, Coquiot quotes him as saying that the drama of the ear took place just days before. The incorrect date may in itself be nothing more than insignificant negligence on the part of Coquiot, the author, but this cannot be said of the statement that follows. If indeed Vincent van Gogh was still wearing the famed bandage and fur hat at the time of Signac’s visit, the question arises how Signac was even able to judge what was hidden underneath the bandage. Furthermore, it is worth noting that Coquiot, when not citing Signac, refers several times in his notes to “ce drame de l’oreille coupée,” i.e. the drama of the severed ear and not to the severed earlobe.8

 

Whereas the biographic descriptions of Johanna van Gogh-Bonger and Gustave Coquiot are to a large extent anecdotic in character, this source material serves as a valuable addition to the entire scope of Vincent van Gogh’s correspondence which survives through today and is the creed upon which countless van Gogh biographies have been based up through the present day. A study carried out by Victor Doiteau and Edgar Leroy, published in 1928, in no way provided an answer to the problem.9 The publication contained all of the handwritten reports in Vincent van Gogh’s medical record by the doctors who treated him. These records very carefully document Vincent van Gogh’s case history, weekly and monthly clinical records, as well as a discharge certificate. These records provide clear evidence. Among other things, all three attending physicians diagnose that van Gogh cut off his left ear during a severe seizure. In the preamble to the publication, the attached facsimiles of which unequivocally verify the evidence that the injury involved the entire ear, the team of authors express its warm-hearted thanks to Johanna van Gogh-Bonger for her cooperation. Hence, in the description of what happened on 23 December 1888, the statements of the three attending physicians are arbitrarily corrected by the authors Doiteau and Leroy, stating that it was only an earlobe: “Voici ce qui s’était  passé. [sic!] Van Gogh rentre à la maison et immédiatement se coupa l’oreille juste au ras de la tête. (Vincent se mutila moins grièvement que le dit Gauguin, il s’entailla seulement le lobute de l’oreille gauche.) Il dut metre un certain temps à arreter le sang […].”10 Although both authors are doctors of medicine no explanation is given as to how they have gained certainty on this issue. One cannot help thinking that the parenthetical sentence, and its far-reaching consequences, was included after having consulted Johanna van Gogh-Bonger.

 

Ronald Pickvance follows Johanna’s version in a comprehensive study of the time Vincent spent in Arles. Following a newspaper article published in Forum Républicain on 30 December 1888, Ronald Pickvance’s description of that fateful night reads as follows: “After a violent quarrel with Gauguin (who had decided to spend the night in a hotel) van Gogh appeared at 11:30 P.M. at the maison de tolerance No. 1, asked  to see a girl named Rachel and handed her his ear with these words: ‘Take good care of this object.’ Then he disappeared (Le Forum Républicain, 30 December 1888; in fact, van Gogh did not cut off the whole of his ear, but only the lower part.) After presenting it to Rachel, he returned to his house and went to bed.”11 The author does not disclose what source leads him to alter the report in Forum Républicain – based on the prostitute’s testimony – to the effect that an earlobe was in fact concerned.

 

At the latest by then, the portrayal of a petty corpuscle was considered the valid interpretation. Although there was other and very definite evidence to the contrary by contemporary witnesses, this interpretation was really never questioned or scrutinized. The ostensibly serious objection, Vincent would have bled to death had it been that way is not convincing, as, in fact, he only narrowly escaped this fate. Vincent van Gogh himself avoided giving an exact description of his ear injury. Two weeks after the incident he wrote his brother: “I hope I have just had merely an artist’s fit, and then a lot of fever after a very considerable loss of blood, as an artery was severed […] my blood recovers from day to day, and in the same way serenity returns to my brain day by day.”12 Seated in front of a mirror he paints two self-portraits with a bulky bandage over his ear, referring only once throughout his lengthy correspondence with Theo van Gogh, in a letter dated 28 January 1889, to his missing ear in a rather embarrassed yet humorous manner: “I believe and I shall always believe in the art that is to be created in the tropics […], but personally I am too old and (especially if I have a papier maché ear put on) too jerry-built to go there.”13 This sentence, otherwise hardly worth citing, gains relevance as it documents that if the patient was considering having an ear made of papier maché evidently more was missing than just an earlobe. After his sudden departure from Arles Paul Gauguin, the main eye witness, reports to his friend Emile Bernard: “Vincent était rentré après mon depart, avait pris le rasoir et s’était tranché net l’oreille.”14

 

In years to come he reiterates this statement, repeating it one last time in his autobiography from 1903, completed just shortly before his death: “Il coupa l’oreille au ras de la tête.”15 Emile Bernard, who attended Vincent van Gogh’s funeral on 30 July 1890 and could have checked this evidence at the latest by this time, confimed in 1911: “In an unfathomable seizure Vincent cut off an ear giving it to a friend in a whorehouse. […] They forced open the door the next morning. By then, the great loss of blood had caused him to lose consciousness.”16 On that fateful night in Arles, the prostitutes called in Alphonse Robert, the police officer on duty in their neighborhood that evening: “Back then, in 1888, I was a security guard. I was on duty in the red-light district that particular day. When I walked past brothel No. 1, […] I’ve forgotten the name of the prostitute […] in the presence of her mistress the latter gave me the newspaper in which the ear was wrapped up […] I checked what was in the package and verified that it was an entire ear.”17 A press release from Arles in the weekly newspaper Forum Républicain dated 30 December 1888 is based on the statements of the prostitute and the policeman: “Last Sunday, at about 11:30 P.M., a certain Vincent Vangogh [sic!], artist, born in Holland, appeared at whorehouse No. 1, asked to see a certain Rachel and gave her his ear with the words: ‘Take good care of this object.’ Then he disappeared. Notified of this incident, which could only have been the action of a poor madman, the police went to the house of the aforementioned person the next morning and found him lying in bed; he was hardly showing any sign of life. The poor fellow was taken as an emergency to hospital right away.”18 Once he had recovered temporarily Vincent van Gogh paid a visit to the prostitute the following month and apologized for the gift and the shock it had caused.

 

As a result of a petition submitted by Vincent’s neighbors, the Chief Police Inspector of Arles, Joseph d’Ornano, who had already been called to the bedside of the bleeding Vincent after the fateful night of 23 December 1888, called a court hearing for re-investigation of the case and wrote in the final report dated 27 February 1889: “All the neighbors were shocked and rightly so, as a few weeks ago this insane man in a fit of rage cut off his ear, a fit which may occur again and could be fatal for anybody in his immediate surroundings.”19 Thus, a severed ear and not merely an earlobe was the cause of his neighbors’ anxiety. The petition was granted; Vincent was admitted to an institution in Saint-Rémy. Dr. Urpar, director of the hospital in Arles, writes in his referral form: “Je soussigné, médecin en chef de l’hôpital certifie, que le nommé Van Gogh (Vincent) agé de 35 ans, a été attaint il y a six mois de manie aigue avec délire généralisé. A cette époque il s’est coupé l’oreille.”20 While this statement is lacking in accuracy from a diagnostic standpoint, it is absolutely clear as far as the ear is concerned. In an interview with art historian Benno Stokvis, Dr. Rey, the attending ward physician in Arles, was to confirm the initial findings later: “After the night Vincent cut off his ear, Gauguin went to Dr. Rey to enlist his assistance with regard to Vincent and to arrange for Vincent’s admission to hospital. […] Vincent was taken to hospital and it was evident that he had lost a great deal of blood. A few days later the woman to whom he had entrusted the ear turned it over to Dr. Rey who preserved it in alcohol for a number of years. The ear was lost when Dr. Rey moved to Paris later on.”21

 

The surviving medical reports from the institution Saint-Paul-de-Mausole in Saint-Rémy, where Vincent van Gogh spent a little over a year, also clearly and decidedly refute the myth of the lobe. Dr. Peyron, medical director in charge at Saint-Rémy, recorded in writing twenty-four hours after Vincent van Gogh’s arrival: “Je soussigné, docteur en Médecine, directeur de la Maison de Santé de Saint Rémy, certifie que le nommé Van Gogh, (Vincent) agé de trente-six ans, natif de Hollande, est actuellement domicilié à Arles, (B.d.R.) entraitement à l’hôpital de cette ville, a été attaint de manie aigue, avec hallucinations de la vue et de l’ouïe, qui l’ont porté à se mutiler en se coupant l’oreille.”22 Dr. Peyron repeated the statement that Vincent van Gogh had cut off an ear while seized by a fit in a “bi-weekly report”: “Ce malade, arreter d’un hospital d’Arles où il était en traitement depuis plusieurs mois. Il y était entré à la suite d’un accès de manie aigue qui était survenu brusquement accompagné d’hallucinations de la vue et de l’ouïe et qui le terrifiaient. Pendant cet accès il se coupa l’oreille gauche, mais il ne conserve de tout cela qu’un souvenir très vague et ne peut s’en rendre compte.”23

 

There are also contemporary witnesses in Auvers whose honest statements serve to establish the truth. Adeline Ravoux, the daughter of the innkeeper, recalls: “I was still very young when Mr. Vincent came to us. He walked with his head inclined slightly to the side from which his missing ear was cleanly cut off.”24 Tony Hirschig, a fellow lodger of Vincent van Gogh’s at the Ravoux Inn testified: “I still see him in front of me, his ear severed […].”25 Paul Gachet alias Paul van Ryssel, physician and amateur painter, treated Vincent van Gogh during the few weeks he spent in Auvers from 20 May 1890 until his death on 29 July 1890. With the exception of a charcoal drawing of Vincent van Gogh on his deathbed, which served as a model for an etching and oil painting, both completed the same year, no other documents concerning Vincent van Gogh’s illness in the physician’s estate survive. The illustrations by the hobby painter do however give a hint of the degree of ear injury. As a photograph from Vincent’s youth and later self-portraits reveal, he had large, rounded, voluminous auricles (outer part of the ear). Gachet’s etching depicts in the place where the left ear had been a small spiky triangle of the inner auricle minus the outer part of the ear; in the oil painting this reference is completely gone. Only a maroon spot indicates the scar of the wound.

 

It can be said that with the exception of the sister-in-law Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, who had family-related reasons for playing down the injury, not a single witness speaks of a severed earlobe. On the contrary, the mutually independent statements by the principal witness Paul Gauguin, the prostitute who was given the ear, the gendarme who was on duty in the red-light district, the investigating police officer and the local newspaper report, accord with the evidence that the artist’s unfortunate “self-mutilation” involves the entire (left) ear. The existing handwritten and clearly worded medical reports by three different physicians, all of whom observed and treated Vincent van Gogh over an extended period of time in Arles as well as in Saint-Rémy ought to provide ultimate proof of the fact that the artist was missing an entire ear and not just an earlobe.


Annotations

 

 

1 Koldehoff, Stefan, Van Gogh – Mythos und Wirklichkeit. Cologne, 2003: 206.

 

2 Dorn, Roland, Décoration. Diss Univ. Mainz, Hildesheim, 1990 (Studien zur Kunstgeschichte 45): “Van Gogh was found, after cutting off his ear, unconscious in the Yellow House […],” page 22; “[…] van Gogh lost control of himself, cut off part of his ear which he gave to a prostitute at around 11:30 P.M. The next morning, he is found unconscious in the Yellow House and taken to the hospital in Arles. The circumstances leading to this incident cannot exactly be reconstructed […],” page 527.

 

3 The investigation is part of the research in preparation for a book publication on Vincent van Gogh’s and Paul Gauguin’s artist community in Arles.

 

4 Van Gogh, Vincent, Brileven aan zijn broeder. Published by Jo van Gogh-Bonger. 3 vols. Amsterdam, 1914.

 

5 Hulsker, Jan, Vincent and Theo van Gogh. A Dual Biography. Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1990: page XIV, page 5. Ibid. 3, pages 125, 132.

 

6 Van Gogh, Vincent, Briefe an seinen Bruder. Published by Johanna van Gogh-Bonger. Berlin, 1928. Vol. 1, preamble: page XLII.

 

7 Coquiot, Gustave, Vincent van Gogh. Paris, 1923: page 194: “Paul Signac, however, visited him. Here the report of his visit: ‛I last saw Vincent, he told us, in Arles in the spring of 1889. He was already in the municipal hospital. A few days earlier he had cut off his earlobe (and not his ear) under the circumstances which you know about. (Madame J. van Gogh-Bonger confirmed that only the earlobe was severed.) But on the day of my visit he was perfectly normal and the doctor allowed me to go outside with him. He was wearing the famous bandage and the fur cap.’” (Translated from French to German by the author, from German to English by the translator)

 

8 Ibid. 7: pages 191-192.

 

9 Doiteau, Victor/Leroy, Edgard, La Folie de Vincent van Gogh. Paris, 1928.

 

10 Ibid. 9: page 43: “The following had happened. Van Gogh returned home and then immediately cut off his ear flush with the side of his head. (Vincent did not injure himself as badly as Gauguin stated, he only cut off his left earlobe.) Apparently it took him a while to stop the bleeding […].” (Translated from French to German by the author, from German to English by the translator)

 

11 Pickvance, Ronald, Van Gogh in Arles. Exhibition catalogue. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1984: page 195.

 

12 Brooks, David. “The Complete Letters.” The Vincent van Gogh Gallery. Letter 569, 2 April 2009. http://vggallery.com/letters/709_V-T_569.pdf

 

13 Ibid. 12. Letter 574.

 

14 Manuscrit du XIXème Siècle, Nouveau Drouot. Auction in Paris 29 March 1985. Object 48. Letter from Emile Bernard to Albert Aurier, postmark 1 January 1889: “Vincent, who returned home after I had left, picked up a razor and cut his ear clean off.” (Translated from French to German by the author, from German to English by the translator)

 

15 Gauguin, Paul, Vorher und Nachher. Translated 1920 by Erik-Ernst Schwabach. Cologne, 1998: page 29.

 

16 Erpel, Fritz (Publisher), Vincent van Gogh. Sämtliche Briefe. Bornheim-Merten, 1985. 6 vols. Vol. 6: page 155.

 

17 Ibid. 16: page 30.

 

18 Le Forum Républicain. 30 December 1888: page 3. Bibliothèque Municipale d’Arles, Espace van Gogh Médiathèque.

 

19 Van Gogh à Arles. Exhibition catalogue Fondation Vincent van Gogh – Arles, 2003. Facsimile: pages 63-65 (report).

 

20 Ibid. 9: page 32, col. 3. Facsimile: “As medical director of the hospital I confirm that said van Gogh, (Vincent), age 35, was taken by an acute manic seizure and delirium. At that time he cut off his ear.” (Translated from French to German by the author, from German to English by the translator)

 

21 Stokvis, Benno, Vincent van Gogh in Arles, Kunst und Künstler. Vol. 27, September 1929: pages 470-474.

 

22 Ibid. 9: page 32, col. 3. Facsimile (cf. 56: “This patient was written sick by the hospital in Arles where he was treated for several months. He was admitted to this hospital following a sudden seizure during which he suffered hallucinations affecting his vision and hearing, thus causing him great anxiety. During the seizure he cut off his left ear, however, he only has a very vague recollection of this incident and is unable to explain it.” (Translated from French to German by the author, from German to English by the translator)

 

24 Ibid. 16. Vol. 6: page 309.

 

25 Ibid. 16. Vol. 6: page 308.