Late in the evening of December 23, 1888, Vincent van Gogh mutilated his own ear. That insane act, the most celebrated case of artistic temperament, raises puzzling questions. One is, why he did he have his crisis then?
The journalist and Van Gogh scholar Martin Bailey has published an intriguing new clue about that.
The traditional explanation is that Van Gogh's fraught relationship with Paul Gauguin, who had been sharing his small house in Arles, France, for the previous two months, was the trigger; and in particular that Gauguin announced he was leaving.
There is another possibility, pointing in a different direction. Bailey has found evidence which he writes about in the Art Newspaper. It is contained in Still Life With a Plate of Onions, a painting included in the Royal Academy's forthcoming London exhibition The Real Van Gogh, which runs from January 23 to April 18.
The rows with Gauguin were not the only dramatic events taking place in the Van Gogh family late in December 1888. Shortly before Christmas, Van Gogh's brother Theo asked a Dutch woman, Jo Bonger, to marry him. In surviving letters, Theo first mentions talking about his engagement with his brother after the ear incident, when Van Gogh was recovering in hospital.
It now seems that Van Gogh may have been informed by post a couple of days earlier and that Theo's happy news helped, at least, to push him over the edge.
Still Life With a Plate of Onions was one of the first pictures he painted on leaving the hospital at Arles on January 7, 1889.
The painting features, among other things, a detailed representation of an envelope addressed in Theo's handwriting.
Microscopic examination reveals that this probably arrived on the morning of that fateful day, December 23. It was posted near Theo's Paris apartment, and the postmark – as was pointed out in the new edition of Van Gogh Letters published by the Van Gogh Museum – was one used immediately before the New Year.
While the actual letter, like most of Theo's, was lost or thrown away by the untidy Van Gogh, it may well have contained news of the engagement. Bailey suggests that Van Gogh painted this missive with such great precision because it was ominously significant.
There were reasons why Van Gogh might have found his brother's romance threatening. Financially and emotionally, he was dependent on Theo. A wife and family might have made it impossible for Theo to continue to support his unsuccessful painter-brother.
And it is true that, as Bailey points out, Van Gogh's first recorded remark about Theo's glad tidings does not sound ecstatic. Recovering in a hospital, he told Theo that he approved of his plans, "but that marriage ought not to be regarded as the main object in life".
On the other hand, Van Gogh's other responses to Theo's new family life were positive. One of the most joyful of all his paintings, Branches With Almond Blossom was a celebration to the birth of Theo and Jo's child in early 1890.
Also, that still life seems to be about renewed health and hope, not despair – the sprouting onions may be a symbol of returning life, and it also contains a self-help medical manual.
So if Van Gogh included the letter for a special reason, it might have been because it was a harbinger of good news, not bad.
Still, Van Gogh's failure to marry or sustain a sexual relationship was one of the miseries that gnawed at him. At a time when he was already in turmoil, Theo's new love may have made him feel even more of an isolated failure. Bailey's discovery adds a fresh twist to one of the great art mysteries.
- The columnist is the author of The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles
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