Fresh views of Van Gogh -- from the ear to the soul

We expect TV to deliver lots of cops and crooks and such; we don't expect it to tell us much about history's great artists. But here we are, with two fascinating films just six days apart. Last Thursday was Pablo Picasso (see previous blog); tonight is a richly revisionist view of the night Vincent Van Gogh is known for. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

For generations,
schoolkids have heard the story of Vincent Van Gogh.

Wasn't he a solemn
and lonely artist who was jilted by a lover – then cut off his ear
and gave it to her?

Now, 128 years after
the event, comes Bernadette Murphy. “EverythingI thought I knew
about Van Gogh, I had to put aside,” she said.

Her research – now
in a fascinating PBS documentary – offers new views of what he cut,
why he did it, who he gave it to ... and what sort of person he was.

“Everybody thought
he was this lonely, solitary character with no money .... None of
that turned out to be true,” Murphy said. “He was a very
friendly, lively man.”

Yes, he hated the
early expectations that he become a clergyman like his father. “He
was unhappy with the whole idea of studying Greek and Latin to become
a pastor,” said David Kessler, a retired librarian (University of
California, Berkeley) who has extensively read letters about Van

He tried working at
his uncles' art-dealer business and soon failed. But his younger
brothet Theo thrived at the same business and promptly became Van
Gogh's patron.

Theo “was
extraordinarily generous,” Murphy said. He suggested his brother
paint in France and gave him a solid salary

And Van Gogh showed
that same spirit, Kessler said. Letters indicated “he was one of
the most generous and caring people you could ever imagine.”

The language barrier
frustrated him, Murphy said, but he had made friends and made plans.
“He had this vision of sort of an artistic community ... where
they'd all hang out, discuss paintings, exchange paintings with each
others.” He even bought 12 chairs for the tiny, yellow house he was

Theo paid artist
Paul Gauguin (who owed him money) to be with Van Gogh in France.
Soon, however, the argumentative side of Vincent's personality
flared. Then two setbacks were almost simultaneous:

-- Gauguin was
leaving, after just nine weeks. The artist-community dream was dying.

-- Theo was getting
married; some day, Van Gogh felt, he would no longer have his

“Those two things
pushed him over the edge,” Murphy said. On Dec. 23, 1888, he cut
his ear and delivered it to a woman. Other questions – how much was
cut and who did he give it to? – lingered.

Then they were
solved, apparently, by a someone with no academic credentials, who
grants she was “never, really, a big van Gogh fan.:

The youngest of
eight children in an Irish Catholic family, Murphy grew up in
England, but visited a brother in France – then decided to stay. “I
thought, 'It's now or never. What were your dreams when you were
younger? Why aren't you doing them?'”

Living in France,
she heard bits of the Van Gogh story and wondered about small
discrepancies. That pushed her to do fresh research. The documentary
shows how she used records and contacts to figure out who received
the ear ... and diligence and luck to learn how much was cut.

Before writing his
1934 novel “Lust For Life,” Irving Stone had done elaborate
research into Van Gogh. Much later, his widow gave his papers to the
University of California, Berkeley, where he had studied. Murphy
began an E-mail dialog with Kessler, who found what he calls “a
very tiny, little scrap of paper, which was written on a prescription
pad by Dr. Rey, with a little diagram and a little note in French,
asking that Irving Stone do good things for the memory of his beloved
friend Vincent.”

On that note was a
diagram showing what had been cut off. It was the entire ear – an
act of despair by a man who was also known for vibrancy and genius.

-- “Secrets of the
Dead: Van Gogh's Ear,” 10 p.m. Wednesday, PBS (check local