The whole truth about Van Gogh’s ear, and why his ‘mad genius’ is a myth

A new exhibition claims Vincent Van Goghs mental illness hampered his work, rather than drove his singular vision and presents fresh medical evidence about his notorious self-mutilation

Madness terrified Vincent van Gogh, yet he also wondered if it was inseparable from artistic genius. In letters to his brother Theo that prove him one of the great writers as well as artists of the 19th century, he broods more than once on an 1872 painting by Emile Wauters called The Madness of Hugo van der Goes, which shows the 15th-century Flemish painter looking a bit like Stanley Kubrick on an intense day as a victim of mental illness.

For Van Gogh this painting captured the dark romantic association of genius and insanity. For the modern age, it is Vincent himself who embodies that fatal creative malady. Yet, a new exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam questions what it sees as a romantic myth about the Dutch artist, who lethally shot himself in a cornfield at Auvers-sur-Oise in 1890.

Using a combination of art, written documents and a severely rusted revolver that was found by a farmer in 1960 in that same cornfield, On the Verge of Insanity argues that far from inspiring his art, Van Goghs illness was an impediment to his talent. It stopped him working for long periods, and he heroically defied its totally uncreative effects to create some of the most powerful art in history.

Powerful art Van Goghs Still life with a plate of onions, 1889. Photograph: Collection Krller-Mller Museum, Otterlo/Van Gogh Museum

When his art, which went almost entirely unsold in his lifetime, started to attract acclaim after his death, this painter of dazzling yellows and hallucinatory blues became seen as cursed by some desperate, mysterious inner pain. The radical French dramatist Antonin Artaud, who spent the later years of his own life in asylums, called Van Gogh a man suicided by society and in the 1956 film Lust for Life, he is portrayed by Kirk Douglas as a character tragically unable to control the torrents of emotion and energy that make him a great artist.

This image of Van Gogh as a mad genius arguably originates in his own art. In his Self-Portrait with a Bandaged Ear (1889), he dwells on the wound he gave himself when he sliced at his ear with a razor blade in Arles in December 1888 and presented the resulting chunk of severed flesh to a local prostitute. He shows us his maimed face, but it gazes at us with the blue eyes of a visionary. This is not an objective record of a misfortune but, in its hypnotic intensity, a portrait of the artist both martyred and liberated by madness.

Visionary Vincent van Goghs Self-Portrait as a Painter, 1887-88. Photograph: Van Gogh Museum

The Van Gogh Museum show reveals important new evidence about the loss of Van Goghs ear. A recently discovered letter from Dr Felix Rey, who treated his wound, explains the full horror beneath the bandage in his 1889 Self-Portrait. It confirms Van Gogh did not just slice off his earlobe, as has been widely assumed, but his entire left ear. This makes it clearer than ever what an extreme act of self harm it actually was and how it forewarned of his suicide.

It also disproves the theory advanced by maverick art historians in 2009 that it was Van Goghs friend Paul Gauguin who sliced off his earlobe with a sword. You might take off a lobe in a sword fight but the radical amputation that Dr Rey describes is more likely to be a sustained effort with a razor by a man compelled to serious violence on himself.

Similarly, the bizarre claim by American biographers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith that Van Gogh did not kill himself but was shot by someone else, is challenged by the rare display of the gun he probably used.

This small calibre, 7mm pocket revolver was found where Van Gogh shot himself in the chest and its extreme corrosion suggests it has been in the ground since the 19th century. The pocket gun of a type called Lefaucheux broche helps explain why the bullet glanced off a rib into Van Goghs abdomen and why he took 30 hours to die from a point blank wound.

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