Van Gogh’s Ear

The True Story

Publisher: Random House Canada
On a dark night in Provence in December 1888 Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear. It is an act that has come to define him. Yet for more than a century biographers and histo­rians seeking definitive facts about what happened that night have been left with more questions than answers.

In Van Gogh’s Ear Bernadette Murphy sets out to discover exactly what happened that night in Arles. Why would an artist at the height of his powers commit such a brutal act of self-harm? Was it just his lobe, or did Van Gogh really cut off his entire ear? Who was the mysterious “Rachel” to whom he presented his macabre gift? Murphy’s investi­gation takes us from major museums to the moldering contents of forgotten archives, vividly reconstructing the world in which Van Gogh moved—the madams and prostitutes, café patrons and police inspectors, his beloved brother, Theo, and his fellow artist and house guest Paul Gauguin. With exclusive revela­tions and new research about the ear and about Rachel, Bernadette Murphy proposes a bold new hypothesis about what was occur­ring in Van Gogh’s heart and mind as he made a mysterious delivery to a woman’s doorstep that fateful night.

Van Gogh’s Ear
is a compelling detective story and a journey of discovery. It is also a portrait of a painter creating his most iconic and revolutionary work, pushing himself ever closer to greatness even as he edged towards madness—and the one fateful sweep of the blade that would resonate through the ages.



[Van Gogh] has been sleuthed with determination and delicacy . . . and the result is an insightful and sympathetic portrait of a troubled artist. . . . Murphy wondered what she could possibly bring to the case that had been raked over by so many experts and historians (quite a bit, as it transpired), but she did feel she had one advantage. Her decades in France had given her an insight into the Provençal mindset. . . . Murphy weaves effortlessly between reconstructing Van Gogh’s life in Arles and her own adventures with dusty archives, absent-minded bureaucrats, serendipitous coincidences and labyrinthine dead ends. In the process she lays to rest some long-held assumptions. . . . She is determined to pursue the story to the end and recounts in poignant detail Van Gogh’s descent into irreversible instability.” —The Australian

“Murphy’s revelations are fascinating and add intriguing details to the great crisis of Van Gogh’s life.” The Times

“Fresh perspective.” —CBC

“No one before has built up such a detailed picture of the people around [Van Gogh] during his unhappy but artistically fertile sojourn in Arles.” —The Telegraph 

This book has the pace of a detective novel, sending fresh blood pulsing through an old tale as Murphy recreates the heartbreaking drama of Van Gogh’s loosening grip on reality. . . . Murphy’s book rescues the real Van Gogh from the lazy clichés of tea towel memorabilia by painting an electric, nuanced portrait of a man who achieved artistic brilliance despite his mental health issues and not because of them. In doing so, she allows for a version of his history in which her subject’s passion for life, art and humanity blooms like the sunflowers he painted.” —The Daily Mail 

“Murphy’s researches led her . . . to revelations which must surely revise the study of Van Gogh. . . . What emerges in the course of these revelations is renewed respect for Van Gogh.” —The National (Scotland)