A Digital Curiosity Cabinet

Sunflowers by Van Gogh, National Gallery

Sunflowers by Van Gogh, © National Gallery

Sunflowers by Van Gogh, © National Gallery

Van Gogh is one of the most famous impressionist painters of his time. He was born in the Netherlands in 1853. He worked as an art dealer in the Hague for a while and then moved to Paris in 1885. In 1888 Van Gogh left Paris with aspirations to paint the brilliant sunshine of the South of France. He rented a house in Arles, called ‘The Yellow House’, and invited his friend Paul Gauguin to join him. Van Gogh painted a series of sunflowers to decorate his friend’s bedroom, before he arrived. To him they represented optimism and the glorious colours of Southern France.

The transient nature of the sunflowers, which began to wilt and fade within hours, required a rapid approach to painting. He used very thick paint, applying it in textured strokes and sometimes used the handle of the brush to score into the surface. He also put fresh paint onto areas that were already wet. He wrote enthusiastically to his brother Theo :

‘I am hard at it, painting with the enthusiasm of a Marseillais eating bouillabaisse (a traditional French stew), which won’t surprise you when you know that, what I’m at is the painting of some sunflowers. If I carry out this idea there will be a dozen panels. So the whole thing will be a symphony in blue and yellow. I am working at it every morning from sunrise on for the flowers fade so quickly.’

Van Gogh and Gauguin worked together throughout autumn 1888. Sadly the collaboration was not a happy one. Their arguments contributed to Van Gogh’s mental breakdown and to Gauguin’s departure. Van Gogh was committed to an asylum near Arles. And this brings us to the story of Van Gogh’s ear.  He painted a self-portrait of himself with a bandaged ear in 1889.

The official story is that he cut off a part of his ear (not the whole ear) with a razor after a row with Paul Gauguin in 1888. Bleeding heavily, Van Gogh then walked to a brothel and presented the piece of ear to an astonished prostitute called Rachel, before going home to sleep in a blood-drenched bed.

Two German academics have come up with an entirely different story. Hans Kaufman and Rita Wildegans suggest that the inconsistencies in Gauguin’s accounts imply that he was not telling the truth. Gauguin was a champion fencer and they suggested that Gauguin sliced off Van Gogh’s ear with a sword. Whatever the truth of the matter, most academics regard the self-mutilation story as the most plausible.

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