Vincent van Gogh Cut Off His Ear to Silence Hallucinations and 10 Other Things We Learned in a New Book About Him
Plus, the Russian government has been secretly hiding a long-lost drawing of "Starry Night" since the end of World War II.
No one can deny the artistic genius of Dutch Post-Impressionist artist Vincent van Gogh, whose masterworks are among the most famous and easily recognizable paintings in the world. Nevertheless, the artist’s reputation remains inextricably tied to his struggles with mental illness—this is, after all, the man who cut off his left ear and gifted it to a female acquaintance.
It was that infamously violent incident in Arles, France, on December 23, 1888, that led Van Gogh to Saint-Paul-De-Mausole, an asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France. He lived there for just over a year, from May 8, 1889, to May 16, 1890. In the new book Starry Night: Van Gogh at the Asylum, journalist and Van Gogh scholar Martin Bailey delves into this critical and remarkably fruitful period in the artist’s career. The author brings to light new details about what life at Saint-Paul was like, the paintings Van Gogh created while he was there, as well as insight into the artist’s fragile mental state, and a fascinating account of the staff and the other patients.
To illuminate this history, Bailey’s gorgeously illustrated tome draws on primary sources, including Van Gogh’s letters, an unpublished diary from a local artist who knew Van Gogh at the time, and rarely consulted records from the municipal archives of Saint-Rémy, of Saint-Paul’s admission register from the late 19th century.
The author also considers the history of the facility, which was founded by Louis Mercurin as an impressively progressive institution that embraced music and art as forms of therapy. The asylum was given a failing grade by inspectors in 1874 and was in dire need of reform prior to Van Gogh’s arrival. Though conditions during the artist’s institutionalization still left room for improvement, Van Gogh became close with the director, Théophile Peyron, and maintained the freedom to work (save for the nadir of his mental crises).
The institutionalization was voluntary, and unlike many asylums of the time, Saint-Paul eschewed the use of straight jackets, refusing to chain up its patients or employ other cruel practices. Nevertheless, mental illness was still poorly understood at the time, and institutionalization must have been difficult for Van Gogh.
The artist, lucid for the majority of his stay, was surrounded by men who were much worse off, according to the book. There was an elderly priest, likely suffering from dementia, a nonverbal “idiot” with a mental age of less than three who lived at Saint-Paul for nearly 45 years, and a man who Van Gogh complained in a letter “breaks everything and shouts day and night.” (Bailey has identified many of these men by name for the first time.)
Nevertheless, Van Gogh came to identify with his fellow patients, who he called “my companions in misfortune.” He also continued to struggle, suffering through four severe mental health episodes while he was there. During these periods, Van Gogh would poison himself by eating his paints, and then become paranoid, convinced that someone else was making an attempt on his life. “My memories of these bad moments are vague,” he wrote to his brother, Theo van Gogh, admitting to eating “filthy things.”
“Strictly speaking I’m not mad, for my thoughts are absolutely normal and clear between times…. but during the crises it’s terrible however, and then I lose consciousness of everything,” Van Gogh explained, noting in another missive that “it’s to be presumed that these crises will recur in the future, it is ABOMINABLE.”
There has been endless speculation over the years as to the true nature of the mysterious mental illness that plagued Van Gogh. Like others before him, Bailey speculates might have been bipolar disorder. Whatever the true diagnosis, toward the end of his stay at Saint-Paul, Van Gogh came to feel that being surrounded by the mentally ill made his own issues worse.
In between episodes—and occasionally during them—Van Gogh made great paintings, over 150 of which survive. From his bedroom window, the artist enjoyed views of golden wheatfields, which he painted throughout the year. Beyond lay the equally inspiring olive groves, and the hills of Les Alpilles. Saint-Paul itself was also a common subject for the artist, who spent many hours in its beautiful, if somewhat overgrown, walled garden, and occasionally depicted the facility’s rooms. (Only one piece, which we’ll get to later, featured the building’s exterior.)
Unsurprisingly, given his productivity, Van Gogh wasted not a minute upon arriving at Saint-Paul. The very next day, he was at work on two flower paintings, including Irises, now in the collection of Los Angeles’s J. Paul Getty Museum. It took just two weeks to almost completely exhaust the art supplies he had brought with him from Arles.
Other works completed at Saint-Paul include self-portraits and portraits of the staff. Bailey identifies Portrait of a Gardener (1889) as farmer Jean Barral, a conclusion based on the work of a local researcher who, in the 1980s, spoke to the grandson of an asylum orderly—and even two of Van Gogh’s fellow patients. Van Gogh also created oil paintings based on black and white copies of the work of other artists, including Eugène Delacroix’s Pietà and Jean-François Millet’s series “Labours of the Fields.”
Although institutionalization did not cure what ailed Van Gogh, the artist’s time at Saint-Paul led to the creation of some of his most beloved works.
Here are 11 things we learned about Van Gogh from Bailey’s new book.
1. You Can Visit Van Gogh’s Asylum Today (But Don’t Expect to See His Work)
Formerly a monastery, Saint-Paul-De-Mausole has become something of a tourist attraction, less for the charms of its Romanesque architecture than for its links to Van Gogh. The facility remains a psychiatric hospital today, but the public can visit the gardens, the chapel, and 12th-century cloister, as well as several rooms, including one furnished as if it were 1889 again. The sign reads “Van Gogh’s Bedroom,” but the artist actually slept in a different part of the asylum.
Back in 1987, Bailey had the rare opportunity to visit what was once the men’s block, since modernized, where Van Gogh would have lived during his institutionalization. According to the author, the hospital, inundated by similar requests as the centenary of the artist’s death approached, soon cracked down on such access, which is now all-but unheard of. (The book includes photographs taken by Bailey in this off-limits area, the first such images ever published in color.)
Before booking a visit, note that the hospital does not own any work by Van Gogh. The artist offered to donate some paintings to the Catholic Sisters of the Order of Saint Joseph, who ran the facility, but they found his work disturbing and turned him down. Since Van Gogh checked out in 1890, his work has only once been exhibited in the town of Saint-Rémy, back in 1951.
2. The Doctor Who Ran the Asylum Liked Van Gogh—But Not His Paintings
Van Gogh respectfully referred to Peyron as père (which means father, but is also a term for a wise, older man) in two letters, and often wrote of his kindness. But when the artist gave the doctor View of the Asylum With a Pine Tree (1889), Peyron “loathed” it, according to a letter by Van Gogh.
Peyron’s son, Joseph, recalled in a 1926 letter that he and his friend once used the doctor’s collection of Van Gogh canvases for target practice. Luckily, View of the Asylum With a Pine Tree survived such ill-use and today belongs to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
3. Disturbing Auditory Hallucinations May Have Driven Van Gogh to Cut Off His Ear
Experts have long debated the exact nature and cause of Van Gogh’s apparent madness. Bailey argues that no one has paid enough attention to accounts detailing the artist’s hallucinations, which Van Gogh described as “unbearable.” In the medical records in the town archives, Peyron wrote that Van Gogh “suffered an attack of acute mania with visual and auditory hallucinations that led him to mutilate himself by cutting off his ear.”
“He might well have done this in a desperate effort to silence the terrible noises or words that he believed he was hearing,” writes Bailey. “In the utmost desperation, Van Gogh might have believed that by removing his ear he would no longer hear the dreadful sounds that were driving him crazy.”
(The author has also made the case that it was news of Theo’s engagement that triggered the gruesome act.)
4. Elizabeth Taylor Fought a Nazi Restitution Claim Over Her Beloved Van Gogh
In 1963, movie star Elizabeth Taylor purchased View of the Asylum and Chapel (1889), Van Gogh’s only artwork with a view of Saint-Paul from the outside, for £92,000 ($130,000). The actress liked to display the painting on her yacht Kalizma, which she kept in London on the river Thames.
But Van Gogh scholar Margarete Mauthner, a German Jewish art collector, had owned the work until the 1930s. Her heirs took Taylor to court, arguing that Mauthner had been forced to sell the paintings under duress to the Nazis and that they were entitled to restitution. Ultimately, the US Supreme Court ruled against the family, and the painting remained in Taylor’s hands until her death in 2011.
A year after Taylor’s death, her estate, including her considerable art holdings, was auctioned at Christie’s London, and View of the Asylum fetched £10.1 million ($16 million). This year, the work has returned to the auction block, fetching $39.68 million at Christie’s New York on May 15, according to the artnet Price Database.
5. Russia Has Been Hiding Van Gogh’s Long-Lost Drawing of Starry Night Since World War II
Viktor Baldin, a captain in the Red Army and an architecture student, was there when Soviet troops stumbled across a hidden cache of drawings and prints from Germany’s Kunsthalle Bremen collection. As soldiers began looting the 5,000 or so artworks, Baldin sprang into action to save the collection, gathering up 364 pieces by the likes of Albrecht Dürer, Paolo Veronese, Edgar Degas, Rembrandt van Rijn, Anthony van Dyck, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec—including a drawing of Starry Night. Van Gogh had made the drawing in June 1889, sending it to Theo ahead of the original painting.
In 1992, Bailey, then a reporter for the Observer, met with Mikhail Piotrovsky, head of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, in the hopes of confirming rumors that some of the missing Bremen works were safe in Russia. As proof, Piotrovsky showed Bailey the Starry Night drawing, which had been secretly transferred to the museum by the KGB without knowledge of senior Hermitage staff.
According to Bailey, the drawing is in good condition, aside from a crease down the center and a small tear, from when the young officer folded the work in half so it would fit in his suitcase. Sadly, no one else outside of Russia can confirm these findings, the country hasn’t made good on promises to return the works from the Bremen collection. The exact whereabouts of the Starry Night drawing, last publicly exhibited in 1937, are currently unknown.
6. Van Gogh Had Been Pondering How to Capture the Night Sky’s Beauty for at Least a Year
During his time in Arles in 1888, Van Gogh wrote letters about his plan to paint “a starry night with cypresses.” Nocturnes appealed to him because the night is “even more richly colored than the day, colored in the most intense violets, blues, and greens,” with “some stars [that] are lemony, others [that] have a pink, green, forget-me-not blue glow.”
“When will I do the starry sky… that painting that’s always on my mind?” he asked a friend. In another letter: “The sight of the stars always makes me dream.”
Though Van Gogh painted Starry Night Over the Rhone in October 1888, the subject matter continued to grip his imagination even amid his mental health struggles at Saint-Paul. The asylum, with its almost total lack of artificial light and pitch-dark skies, was the perfect place to tackle this subject matter. Bailey suggests that the white band above the hills in Starry Night may represent the Milky Way, and notes that soon after Van Gogh arrived at Saint-Paul, he awoke before dawn and saw Venus rising over the countryside.
On June 14, 1889, armed with new paints sent by Theo, including the dominant ultramarine and cobalt blues, Van Gogh set to work on his masterpiece, an imaginative, evocative rendition of an impossibly swirling night sky. In the end, the painting took all of two days to complete.
7. The Great Wave May Have Been an Important Influence on the Most Famous Part of Starry Night
Sometimes the best masterpieces are inspired by another. Van Gogh was an avowed admirer of Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai’s famous The Great Wave. Towering over Mount Fuji, wrote the artist, the work’s “waves are claws, the boat is caught in them, you can feel it.” Bailey cites the similar sense of motion in Starry Night’s rolling blue sky, arguing that Van Gogh, who was known to be interested in Japanese art, must have had Hokusai’s work in mind while completing the canvas.
8. Starry Night Got Its Title Decades After the Artist’s Death
Surprisingly, Van Gogh never called the work Starry Night, referring to it instead as “night effect,” “starry sky,” and “night study,” possibly considering it as an experiment rather than a fully realized work. Theo called it “the village in the moonlight,” and it was initially known as The Stars after Van Gogh’s death. It was rechristened Starry Night in 1927, on the occasion of an exhibition in Rotterdam, and the name has stuck ever since.
9. MoMA Parted With Three Other Masterworks to Get Starry Night
Deaccessioning works of art from museum collections can be highly controversial today, but the practice is what landed the MoMA Starry Night, arguably Van Gogh’s most famous work and an undeniable jewel of the MoMA collection. Remarkably, when the institution acquired it in 1941, the painting wasn’t remotely famous, having been part of private collections and rarely shown publicly. (Its first owner was Symbolist poet Julien Leclercq.)
The museum first had the chance to acquire the masterpiece in 1936, when its then-owner, a Dutch woman named Georgette van Stolk, offered it for the price of 100,000 guilders ($64,000). The museum couldn’t come up with the money, and the work instead passed to Jewish art dealer Paul Rosenberg. Much of his collection was seized by Nazis when Rosenberg fled France in 1940—related restitution cases are still being litigated today—but the dealer had the foresight to include Starry Night among the works he brought with him to the US.
A year later, MoMA was finally able to seal the deal. The price? Toulouse-Lautrec’s May Belfort in Pink and Paul Cézanne’s Portrait of Victor Chocquet in an Armchair and Fruit and Wine, bequeathed by Modern art collector Lillie Bliss upon her death in 1931. Upon arriving at MoMA, the painting was finally recognized, rightfully, for the masterpiece that it is.
10. Before It Was Famous, Starry Night Inspired the First Literary Work Based on Van Gogh’s Life
Much like Van Gogh during his lifetime, Starry Night languished in obscurity for 50 years. But back in 1892 and 1893, the writer and art critic Octave Mirabeau published a novel that could only have been inspired by the canvas. In an 1891 review, Mirabeau praised Van Gogh’s “admirable madness of skies where drunken stars spin and totter, spreading and stretching into scruffy comet’s tails.”
The novel Dans le Ciel, or “In the Sky” followed, a tale that paints genius and insanity as two sides of the same coin. The main character, the artist Lucien, paints “landscapes under whirling stars” with a “drunken moon that made the sky look like a noisy dancehall.” He dies after cutting off his hand in a fit of madness.
11. Speaking of Novels, Van Gogh Was a Bibliophile
As much time as he spent painting during his institutionalization, Van Gogh also found time to read. In addition to Dutch, Van Gogh spoke French, German, and English, so his bookshelf cast a wide net. At Saint-Paul, he had the complete works of Shakespeare in English, a German translation of Henrik Ibsen plays, and French novels by Voltaire and Emile Zola. The artist was also known to be a fan of Walt Whitman, and added copies Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Charles Dickens’s Christmas Tales to his version of Paul Gauguin’s Portrait of Marie Ginoux (The Arlesienne), 1890.
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