Poor, virtually unknown, bedevilled by mental illness throughout his life; now one of Western culture’s most influential (and expensive) artists. Vincent van Gogh’s troubled life continues to fascinate scholars and the public.
Two revelations in a new book may only add to his legacy. The bed depicted in his famous 1888 work The Bedroom may survive after almost 130 years, and there’s a new theory on why he cut off his ear.
In Studio of the South: Van Gogh in Provence, art historian Martin Bailey explores the 15 months when the Dutch-born painter lived and worked in the South of France.
He finds that Van Gogh bought the bed and a guest bed in September 1888, for 150 francs each, before fellow artist Paul Gaugin came to stay at the Yellow House in Arles.
He painted The Bedroom as a proud document of his first home. After his 1890 suicide the bed passed to his brother Theo’s widow Jo. She took it back to Holland to use in her small guest house.
Bailey has uncovered a 1937 letter to Jo’s nephew, also called Vincent, from promoters of a museum to be established in the Yellow House. The younger Vincent replied: “I could give you the bed which appears in the painting of the bedroom.”
The museum never eventuated because the Yellow House was hit by Allied bombs in 1944 and demolished.
In 2015 Bailey contacted Vincent’s son, Johan van Gogh, then aged 93. He recalled the bed had been donated to villagers near Arnhem in 1945, later tracked down as the small town of Boxmeer.
Bailey believes that is where the bed may survives to this day, with its owner likely completely unaware of its history.
Bailey dedicates a chapter to the ear-cutting incident, which happened just after the bedroom painting. Many attribute the event to a fight with Gauguin and the stress that had built up between the two – they’d been rooming together and painting side-by-side for months.
Rather, Bailey believes it was news of Theo’s engagement that provoked van Gogh.
His research suggests that a few hours before van Gogh cut off his ear – the extent of the injury is still debated – he received a letter from Theo saying he had asked Jo (nee Bonger) to marry him.
“Two things: Vincent was financially dependent on his brother for an allowance and without that he could not have worked as an artist. And he had problems with his family, but the one person he was close to was Theo,” said Bailey.
“It seems to me Vincent had a fear of being abandoned by his brother and that’s what drove him to it.”
Van Gogh’s mental health has long been a subject of discussion among scholars and others. Physicians and art historians from around the world gathered in Amsterdam in September to talk about his diagnosis at a meeting sponsored by the Van Gogh Museum.
Arko Oderwald, a lecturer in philosophy and medical ethics in Amsterdam, who attended the meeting, disagrees with the new theory.
“Since I have been involved in the question of van Gogh’s disease, I found out there is a lot of speculation. I am afraid this is one of those speculations,” he said.
Substance abuse, epilepsy and other organic disorders could have triggered psychosis.
Van Gogh’s medical records note he was “prey to aural hallucinations” and heard voices, and Bailey suggests he might have been attempting to silence those voices by severing his ear.
After van Gogh’s suicide, Jo collected as many paintings as she could, but discovered many had been destroyed or lost; van Gogh’s mother had thrown away crates full of his art.
On March 17, 1901, 71 paintings were displayed in Paris, and his fame grew. His mother lived long enough to see her son hailed as a genius.
Today, several of his paintings rank among the most expensive in the world; Irises sold for $US53.9m and Portrait of Dr Gachet for $US82.5m.
More than 100 years since his death, more works were released. Sunset at Montmajour was unveiled by the Van Gogh Museum in September 2013. A Norwegian industrialist owned the painting and stored it in his attic, thinking it wasn’t authentic.
Maybe the same is true of the bed.