AMSTERDAM — Everyone knows that Vincent van Gogh cut off his left ear. But since that fateful event nearly 128 years ago, there has been continuing debate among scholars about the severity of that mutilation, which took place in Arles, France, in December 1888. Did he simply slice off a little chunk of his ear, or did he lop off the entire ear?
The author and amateur historian Bernadette Murphy, while researching the last period of that Dutch Post Impressionist’s life for a new book, discovered a document in an American archive that may help resolve the issue. A note written by Félix Rey, a doctor who treated van Gogh at the Arles hospital, contains a drawing of the mangled ear showing that the artist indeed cut off the whole thing.
The letter and drawing will be displayed for the first time at the Van Gogh Museum’s exhibition “On the Verge of Insanity,” which opens here on Friday and runs through Sept. 25, along with previously unexhibited documents and artifacts that try to provide more detailed evidence about van Gogh’s mental illness.
The exhibition will also include about 25 paintings and other objects, like a corroded revolver that van Gogh may have used to kill himself, museum officials say. These will try to explore, in particular, the final stretch of his life while his troubles escalated, from the ear-cutting incident to July 29, 1890, when he apparently committed suicide in Auvers-sur-Oise, France.
The subject of the artist’s mental state has always fascinated people who admire his art, but until now the Van Gogh Museum, which contains the largest collection of his work in the world, has not directly addressed the subject. Until recently, the museum has focused on van Gogh’s aesthetic and technical progression, but interest in his biography is driving a different approach to exhibitions.
Van Gogh’s portrait of Dr. Félix Rey, who treated the artist’s mangled ear. Credit The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow
“This is really the start of a new series of small, focused exhibitions, which will only take one floor of the building but will enable us to give the visitors more information about van Gogh’s life,” said Nienke Bakker, curator of paintings for the Van Gogh Museum and curator of this exhibition. “This seemed for us to be the perfect subject to start with.”
Ms. Bakker said that most museum visitors wanted to know the details of van Gogh’s life: “The three most frequently asked questions are: What happened with his ear? What kind of illness did he have? and, Why did he commit suicide?”
The exhibition coincides with the release of the book, “Van Gogh’s Ear: The True Story,” by Ms. Murphy.
Steven Naifeh, an American historian and author of the 2011 “Van Gogh: The Life,” said in an email after looking at the new document, “I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, that they had indeed found new information from Rey, but it is not new, and it is not credible.”
In his biography, Mr. Naifeh argues that witnesses who saw van Gogh after Dr. Rey, including his brother Theo’s wife, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, the artist Paul Signac and van Gogh’s doctor in Auvers-sur-Oise, Dr. Paul Gachet, said that the entire ear was not missing.
They all “saw a portion of the mutilated ear remaining — so much, in fact, that, when Vincent was seen from face-on, the damage could go unnoticed,” Mr. Naifeh wrote. “Dr. Gachet, who saw Vincent in Auvers in 1890, made a very detailed etching of the artist’s mutilated ear at that time showing that the entire pinna (outer portion) of the ear was not taken off, but the missing portion was more than just a lobe.”