According to a new investigation, Gabrielle Berlatier has been identified as the young woman that Vincent Van Gogh gave his severed ear to. The family has been tracked down after a new book on the artist, published last week, referred to the woman. In an article published by Artlyst last week it was revealed that Van Gogh cut off his entire ear, rather than part of it. The woman known as Gabrielle was working as a maid in a brothel when she was given the morbid gift, according to the new research.
Van Gogh is said to have handed over the ear to her with the words “keep this object carefully”. Author Bernadette Murphy referred to the woman in Van Gogh’s Ear: The True Story, which was published last week. She said she had promised the woman’s descendants she would keep her surname a secret, until they gave her permission to reveal it. Following the book’s publication, details in the book were followed up and discovered Gabrielle’s name in the records of the Institut Pasteur in Paris, where she had been treated for rabies after being bitten by a dog.
In the final eighteen months of his life, Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) was plagued by a sporadic and unpredictable illness that changed his life fundamentally. Each new episode left the artist utterly confused and unable to work for days and sometimes weeks at a time. Between attacks, he was lucid and continued to paint and draw as much as ever. Work seemed his only lifeline, the best remedy in his struggle with illness. On the Verge of Insanityshows that Van Gogh’s artistic production occurred in spite of rather than as product of his illness. Paintings, drawings and documents are used to inform visitors about the key moments in Van Gogh’s medical history, examining the various diagnoses suggested by doctors over the years, showing how people around the painter responded to his illness, and questioning the extent to which his mental condition influenced his work.
The ‘ear incident’, through which Van Gogh’s illness manifested itself in December 1888 while he was living in the southern French town of Arles, is reconstructed in the exhibition through eyewitness testimony and letters. An exceptional loan is the recently discovered letter from Félix Rey, the doctor who treated Van Gogh in the hospital. It was found in an American archive by Bernadette Murphy, while researching her book Van Gogh’s Ear: the True Story. Rey’s letter includes drawings showing that Van Gogh cut off the whole of his left ear and not, as was long believed, just part of it. The discovery brings an end to a long-standing biographical question. The letter is exhibited alongside Van Gogh’s portrait of Dr Rey, which the artist gave the physician as a token of gratitude for his care, now in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow and being shown at the Van Gogh Museum for the first time.
Gabrielle’s first name had been revealed in 1936 in an article quoting the policeman called to the brothel in Arles where Van Gogh sliced off his ear in 1888, but newspaper reports at the time called her Rachel, which may have been a nickname. The painter cut off his ear after suffering a mental breakdown. He was found alive by police the next day and taken to hospital. Van Gogh committed suicide in 1890.