New theory explains why Van Gogh cut off his ear

02nd November 2016

The widely held belief that an argument with fellow artist Paul Gauguin drove Van Gogh to cut off his ear may be incorrect, according to new research.

When researching his new book, Studio of the South, writer Martin Bailey uncovered evidence that Van Gogh's famous act of self-mutilation could have been sparked by an altogether different catalyst - though he believes the argument with Gauguin took place on the same day.

Mr Bailey has found letters that suggest it was actually the news of his brother's impending marriage that resulted in Van Gogh taking a razor to his ear. Not only having a close relationship to his brother, Van Gogh was also supported by him financially.

The letter from his brother, Theo, delivering the news arrived the same day that Vincent cut off his ear - December 23rd 1888. 

Mr Bailey believes that this news signalled to Van Gogh the loss of his close relationship with his brother and, as he would have a wife and family to support, the end of his financial assistance too. 

That Van Gogh was distressed by the news of Theo's engagement is not new knowledge in itself. What Mr Bailey has discovered, however, is that Vincent seems to have received this news prior to cutting off his ear; previously, it was believed he only learned of the engagement after. 

It is believed the famous quarrel between Van Gogh and Gauguin happened later that day, once Vincent had received and read the letter and after the two men had been working in close quarters all day.

It is said that he then delivered the ear to a woman working in a nearby brothel, which he used to frequent, before fleeing. He was later found by the police and was taken to hospital, where he was visited by his brother on Christmas Day. 

Van Gogh was discharged from hospital in early January, and continued to paint during his remaining months in Arles, creating some of his best-loved works during this time. 

The news of what sparked the artist's self-mutilation is not the only point of curiosity to come from Bailey's book. Indeed, the writer also puts forward evidence that Van Gogh's bed, which found fame in his painting The Bedroom (1888), may have survived to this day.

Writing in The Art Newspaper, Mr Bailey describes how he traced the famous bed, and how he believes it survived until after the Second World War - and could now be tucked away in Boxmeer, a small Dutch town.

After Van Gogh's death, his brother Theo inherited it along with his estate. However, Theo himself died only six months later, leaving the bed to pass into the hands of his widow. Moving back to Holland, she established a guest house, with the famous bed being used for lodgers. When Jo died, the bed passed on to her son, who lived in Laren.

In 1945, the people of Laren donated a mass of furniture to Boxmeer in aid of war victims, and it is here that Bailey believes Van Gogh's bed ended up.

Studio of the South: Van Gogh in Provence will be released on November 3rd.

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