In February 1888, Vincent Van Gogh arrived in Arles, a tiny Provencal town in the south of France. He wished to establish a sort of painters’ colony, a group of artists who would work together and discuss art together, a desire that did not come to fruition. Only Paul Gauguin arrived, and Van Gogh and Gauguin shared for some months a house and an intense, fractious relationship.
Van Gogh’s own work, though, saw a remarkable efflorescence ever since his arrival at Arles. In a period of extraordinary fecundity, he created the majority of the masterpieces for which he is best remembered – work that, at the time, had found few takers.
In the time between his arrival in Arles in February 1888 and his death in July 1890, Van Gogh produced the work on which his legend is built. These canonical paintings – such as Starry Night, Wheat Fields with Cypresses, The Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles, Night (also known as Night Café in Arles), Vase with 12 Sunflowers, The Yellow House, and numerous haunting portraits of himself as well as people he knew in the area – have, as Julian Barnes wrote in a 2015 essay, “turned Van Gogh into a world brand”. The work of those two-and-a-half years resulted in the Van Gogh kitsch industry: the reincarnations on fridge magnets and tote bags, on tea doilies and mugs.
This was also the most tumultuous and calamitous period of a largely tumultuous and calamitous life. It culminated with Van Gogh’s death, at the age of 37, from a self-inflicted gun wound. It also contained the gruesome incident of the painter cutting off his ear, a tragedy that has gone some way towards establishing the mythology and iconography, the kitsch and the branding of Van Gogh even among – especially among – those who are not too intimately familiar with his work.
Bernadette Murphy’s book is a detailed exploration of this period in Van Gogh’s life, and a forensic examination of that December day in 1889 when he cut off his ear. She comes up with what she calls three major findings. First, Van Gogh slashed off his entire ear as opposed to a part of it. Secondly, he gave the severed ear not, as had been thought, to a local prostitute, but to a maid who worked in a brothel close to where Van Gogh lived. Thirdly, it was not, as many accounts have said, the majority of the town that wanted Van Gogh removed from Arles and committed to an asylum, but a handful of people who had vested interests in the house Van Gogh was renting in Arles. Intrepid and conscientious, Murphy hops across continents to glean information. The research is exhaustive; the text it yields is exhausting.
If you want to know how Van Gogh thought and felt, the best places by far to go to remain his letters and his paintings (the strongest sections of Van Gogh’s Ear are the extended excerpts from the artist’ writing and the gorgeously reproduced colour plates of his paintings). If you are of a mind to find out more about that final, tortured, prodigious phase of his life, Martin Gayford’s The Yellow House, an evocative, intimate account of his life and work in the south of France (and a book of which Murphy is unreservedly critical) is your best bet. For a quick understanding of his art and life, Julian Bell’s 2015 slender-but-hardly-slight biography, Van Gogh: A Power Seething, does the job. Murphy’s persistence is admirable, but her book does little to enhance our understanding of one of the greatest painters the world has ever seen.