Besides his many famous works like Starry Night, Bedroom in Arles, and The Yellow House, Vincent van Gogh is best known for cutting off part of his ear. The story goes that on Dec. 23, 1888, the Dutch painter, suffering from severe depression, took a razor to his ear, and then cleaned off the chunk he removed and gave it to a prostitute. Documenting his mutilation in his Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear, scholars have long speculated that van Gogh only cut off a small bit of his earlobe. However, a recently discovered letter and drawings by the physician that treated van Gogh after the incident suggests he chopped off quite a bit more.

In the course of her decade-long research into van Gogh’s life and death, [historian Bernadette Murphy] discovered that [writer Irving Stone], while working up what became Lust for Life, had actually visited Arles in August, 1930, and met with van Gogh’s physician, Félix Rey. At some point in their conversation, Stone asked the 65-year-old Rey if he would kindly draw an illustration of van Gogh’s injury. The doctor tore off a page from his prescription pad and proceeded to draw, in black ink, a picture of the artist’s ear before he attacked it with a cut-throat razor and a picture of it afterward. The top picture has a dotted line clearly showing the trajectory of the slice while the bottom reveals a tiny remnant of the lobe.

At the bottom of the page, Rey says he’s “happy to give [Stone] the information you have requested concerning my unfortunate friend. I sincerely hope that you won’t fail to glorify the genius of this remarkable painter, as he deserves.” (After van Gogh recovered from his injury, he “went to great lengths to hide the wound,” Murphy writes, “purchasing a hat immediately after leaving the hospital.”)

Credit: Irving Stone Archives, University of California Berkeley

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