Why Van Gogh cut his ear: new clue
Still-life painting depicts letter with news of his brother's engagement
By Martin Bailey. News, Issue 209, January 2010
Published online: 30 December 2009
An envelope depicted in a Van Gogh painting provides a clue that could help to explain why the artist slashed his ear. The envelope, in Still Life: Drawing Board with Onions, 1889, is addressed to Vincent from his brother Theo. Until now, no one has considered whether the artist was illustrating a specific letter.
The letter in the painting probably arrived in Arles on 23 December 1888, the fateful day when Vincent mutilated his ear in the late evening. It almost certainly contained news that Theo had fallen in love with Johanna (Jo) Bonger, and Vincent was fearful that he might lose his brother’s emotional and financial support.
In the still-life, the handwriting on the envelope is clearly Theo’s, and the letter is addressed to Vincent in Arles. Although the postmarks lack a legible date, one contains the number “67”, enclosed in a circle. This was used by the post office in Place des Abbesses, close to Theo’s Montmartre apartment.
The postmark directly over the two postage stamps reads “Jour de l’An” (New Year’s Day). This was spotted by Dutch specialists working on the new edition of Van Gogh’s letters, which was published in October. They concluded that the letter had been posted during “the busy period around New Year” and it had possibly arrived on 23 December, the date Vincent received his 100 francs financial allowance from Theo by post. The letter was probably posted the day before from Paris.
The established view is that Vincent did not learn of Theo’s engagement until after he mutilated his ear, but our research suggests that news of the love affair reached him on 23 December. Theo and Jo had met (for a second time, after a long break) in Paris in mid-December and decided to marry just a few days later. On 21 December Theo wrote to his mother, asking for permission. His brother must surely have been among the next to know.
It seems Vincent already knew of the impending engagement when Theo visited him in hospital on Christmas Day. In a recently published letter, Theo wrote to his fiancée about the brief hospital visit: “When I mentioned you to him he evidently knew who and what I meant and when I asked whether he approved of our plans, he said yes, but that marriage ought not to be regarded as the main object in life.”
On Christmas Day Vincent was suffering from a life-threatening wound and was in considerable mental distress, so it seems unlikely that Theo would have broken the news about his engagement. Although it was briefly discussed, this was presumably because Vincent had already known.
Still Life: Drawing Board with Onions was painted just a few days after Vincent returned to the Yellow House on 7 January 1889. News of the love affair could well have been a trigger for the self-mutilation, although there was probably no one simple explanation for the incident and there were also serious tensions with Gauguin. Vincent may have feared (wrongly) that he would lose the support of Theo. For years, Theo had provided money and friendship.
Vincent’s feelings must have been complex, and by January 1889 he may well have become reconciled to the engagement, following reassurances from his brother. The very fact that he included the envelope in the still-life suggests a message of hope.
Although it is speculation, the postmark on the envelope might represent a coded message that the strong links between the two brothers would survive. The Musée de La Poste in Paris told us that although “Jour de l’An” postmarks were widely used in the run-up to Christmas and New Year in the 1880s, most are fairly small marks, rather than the more prominent words inscribed by Van Gogh. This suggests that the personalised postmark may have been Vincent’s way of stressing to Theo that the letter depicted was a very particular one—and that he wished his brother well for the new year.
The painting, on loan from the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, will form the centrepiece of “The Real Van Gogh: the Artist and his Letters”, opening at London’s Royal Academy on 23 January.
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