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Why did Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear? This compelling detective story reveals the truth about the art world's greatest mystery

In December 1888, Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear. It is the most famous story about any artist in history. But what really happened on that dark winter night?
In Van Gogh's Ear, Bernadette Murphy reveals the truth. She takes us on an extraordinary journey from major museums to forgotten archives, vividly reconstructing Van Gogh's world. We meet police inspectors and café patrons, prostitutes and madams, his beloved brother Theo and fellow painter Paul Gauguin.

Why did Van Gogh commit such a brutal act? Who was the mysterious 'Rachel' to whom he presented his macabre gift? Did he really remove his entire ear? Murphy answers these important questions with her groundbreaking discoveries, offering a stunning portrait of an artist edging towards madness in his pursuit of excellence.
BBC RADIO 4 BOOK OF THE WEEK
PRIMETIME BBC2 DOCUMENTARY WITH JEREMY PAXMAN

Reviews

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.

Daily Mail

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

Michael Prodger, The Times

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.

Daily Mail

She knows Provence with an intimacy that’s rare in the ear genre. Her descriptions of the people, their landscape, their customs are unusually detailed… Her second stand-out quality is a doggedness that goes beyond the usual art-historical drives. Relentlessly she wrestles with the book’s central mystery.

Waldemar Januszczak, Sunday Times

No one before has built up such a detailed picture of the people who surrounded the great artist.

Martin Gayford, Daily Telegraph

Legend has it that Van Gogh cut off the ear to send to a woman he loved, surely one of the most ineffective instances of flirting in cultural history. However, Murphy’s sleuthing allowed her to track down the girl that Van Gogh gave his ear to, who turned out to be a cleaner in a brothel. She also found a document drawn up by Dr Felix Rey, who cared for Van Gogh after the incident, which confirms that the ear was brutally severed.

Evening Standard

It is arguably the best-known story in the history of art: Vincent van Gogh lops off part of his ear in a moment of insanity and drops it off at a brothel. The facts behind how the artist mutilated himself and what happened next can now be told for the first time, according to experts, after crucial medical evidence was discovered. Bernadette Murphy, the researcher who discovered the letter and traced the family of the unknown girl, has now speculated that Van Gogh could have been offering his own flesh in a noble but deluded attempt to help heal her.

Hannah Furness, Daily Telegraph

The horror of Vincent van Gogh cutting off his ear in 1888 is one of the most famous incidents in art history...Now dramatic discoveries are painting the real story in a new light...When [Bernadette Murphy] presented her research to experts at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, they were astonished.

Dalya Alberge, Daily Mail

A recently discovered letter from Félix Rey, the doctor who treated Van Gogh in the hospital...was found in an American archive by Bernadette Murphy. The discovery brings an end to a long-standing biographical question.

Artlyst

Bernadette Murphy...discovered a document in an American archive. A note written by Félix Rey, a doctor who treated van Gogh at the Arles hospital, contains a drawing of the mangled ear showing that the artist indeed cut off the whole thing. Murphy...was also able to identify the woman to whom van Gogh gave his ear.

Nina Siegal, New York Times

An Irish-born amateur historian appears to have solved one of the great mysteries of Western art. Bernadette Murphy includes the first-ever reproduction of the diagram in her book Van Gogh’s Ear. Another coup for Murphy is her debunking of the long-circulating story that had dozens, even a hundred or so, of Arles residents signing a petition in late February, 1889, urging the mayor to return the recovering van Gogh to his family or, failing that, put him in an asylum.

Globe and Mail (Canada)

Her bit of 'research gold' — as one van Gogh specialist called it — came from a drawing in the collection of novelist Irving Stone. 'It’s really quite jarring, after 129 years to see something new come along,” says a van Gogh specialist. 'It’s not Bernadette having an opinion or some theories, it’s really concrete stuff she's uncovered...The really great thing about what she has done is that she has traced back this information to somebody who was standing next to Vincent van Gogh.'

Toronto Star (Canada)

The discovery of a drawing by the doctor who treated the artist in 1888 provides comprehensive evidence that Van Gogh sliced far deeper than scholars had thought.

The Times

Bernadette Murphy has investigated his grisly act with the forensic zeal of a latter-day Sherlock Holmes…no-one before has built up such a detailed picture of the people who surrounded this great artist during his short, unhappy but artistically fertile sojourn in Arles.

Daily Telegraph

[It] is both intriguing and unexpected.

Eastern Daily Press

As meticulous and methodical as the finest fictional sleuth, Murphy studied… 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.

Helen Brown, Daily Mail

[It] recounts her formidable detective work.

Michael Prodger, Sunday Times, Book of the Year

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 one fateful sweep of the blade that would resonate through the ages.

Joanna Carter, App Whisperer, Book of the Year

Bernadette Murphy… Is like a detective on the case of Van Gogh. And she’s excellent – she creates a vivid picture of this strange, troubled genius, and also of what it was like to be in Provence in 1888.

William Leith, Evening Standard

With the forensic zeal of a latter-day Sherlock Holmes, Murphy investigates Van Gogh’s grisly act of chopping off his own ear.

Daily Telegraph

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Formats & editions

  • Paperback

    9781784702229

    July 31, 2017

    Vintage

    336 pages

    RRP $30.00

    Online retailers

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    Find your local bookstore at booksellers.org.au

  • Hardback

    9781784740610

    July 15, 2016

    Chatto & Windus

    336 pages

    RRP $48.00

    Online retailers

    • Abbey's Bookshop
    • Angus & Robertson Bookworld
    • Booktopia
    • Boomerang Books
    • Collins Booksellers
    • Dymocks
    • Books Kinokuniya
    • The Nile
    • QBD
    • Readings
    • Robinsons Bookshop
    Or

    Find your local bookstore at booksellers.org.au

  • Trade Paperback

    9781784740627

    July 12, 2016

    Chatto & Windus

    336 pages

    RRP $38.00

    Online retailers

    • Abbey's Bookshop
    • Angus & Robertson Bookworld
    • Booktopia
    • Boomerang Books
    • Collins Booksellers
    • Dymocks
    • Books Kinokuniya
    • The Nile
    • QBD
    • Readings
    • Robinsons Bookshop
    Or

    Find your local bookstore at booksellers.org.au

  • EBook

    9781473523722

    July 12, 2016

    Vintage Digital

    336 pages

    Online retailers

    • iBooks
    • Amazon Kindle
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    • eBooks
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