Vincent van Gogh, "The Night Café" (1888), oil on canvas (via Yale University Art Gallery)

Vincent van Gogh, “The Night Café” (1888), oil on canvas (Yale University Art Gallery, via Wikimedia Commons)

Shortly before Christmas, 1888, as the story goes, while living in Arles, France, and suffering from a deep depression, Vincent van Gogh sliced off part of his left ear with a razor blade, wrapped the severed ear in cloth, walked to a nearby brothel, and handed it to a woman working there. The full name of this woman, who allegedly fainted upon receiving the ear, has been a mystery for nearly 130 years.

Now, she’s been named as Gabrielle Berlatier, and she was a farmer’s daughter, according to new research by the Art Newspaper.

In Van Gogh’s Ear: The True Story, published last week, author Bernadette Murphy refers to the woman, but not by name. She writes that she made a promise to Berlatier’s descendants: “Until I am given permission by the family to reveal her surname, I will respect their wishes and keep it private.”

Based on details about the woman in Murphy’s book, the Art Newspaper was able to find her name in the records of the Institut Pasteur in Paris, where she had been treated for rabies after being attacked by a dog. Aged 18 at the time of the incident, Berlatier was too young to have been a registered prostitute, and was working as a maid at the brothel to pay off her medical bills for her rabies treatment.

In addition to revealing her name, the research calls for a revision of perhaps the most notorious incident of self-harm in modern art history. Most current historians assume that the recipient of the ear had barely known van Gogh, and had been a prostitute or madame at the brothel at 1 Rue Bout d’Arles. But some evidence suggests that Berlatier may have previously worked as a cleaner at the Café de la Gare, which was run by Joseph and Marie Ginoux, friends of van Gogh. “The Night Café,” which van Gogh painted three months before his incident of self-mutilation, depicts the café’s interior. “The fact that Gabrielle Berlatier most likely knew the owners of the Café de la Gare raises the intriguing possibility that she was someone whom Van Gogh saw regularly,” Martin Bailey writes in the Art Newspaper

In her book, Murphy suggests that van Gogh’s bequeathing of his ear may have been a deluded attempt at helping to heal the woman. “[Berlatier] had had a very nasty scar on her arm following the bite,” Murphy told the Daily Telegraph“Van Gogh was somebody who was very touched by people in difficulty. I feel that he wanted to give her this gift of flesh.”

The identification of Berlatier follows another recent discovery that shifts the accepted story of van Gogh’s ear. Until now, the theory had been that he only sliced off the lower part of his left ear. But earlier this month, the discovery of a handwritten letter from Dr. Félix Rey, the physician who treated the wound in December 1888, challenges that notion. Sketches accompanying the letter suggest he sliced off his entire ear. The letter and drawing will be displayed for the first time in On the Verge of Insanity, a new exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering arts and culture. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Baffler, The Village Voice, and elsewhere.

3 replies on ““He Wanted to Give Her This Gift of Flesh”: Recipient of van Gogh’s Ear Identified”

      1. I,ve always believed the earlier theory that he overheard something probably about himself and when he realized how devastated this made the woman feel he wished to rid himself of the offending ear. Then comes the really unstable part where he thinks she will understand his gesture with anything but horror.

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