The Art Newspaper has revealed the answer to a nagging, sensational art historical/corporeal/aural unknown — the recipient of Vincent Van Gogh’s self-severed ear. The publication named the lucky gal for the first time ever: a certain Gabrielle Berlatier. The revelation comes 130 years since “Who was unfortunate enough to have Vincent Van Gogh bring his just-razored lower left ear to them?” ever became a question.
The news came about following the publication (just last week) Bernadette Murphy’s book Van Gogh’s Ear: The True Story. That book went in depth into the incident (and also alleges that it was not just Van Gogh’s lobe, but nearly the whole ear, that was cut), but did not name Berlatier, out of a pact with her descendants to keep her name hushed.
But The Art Newspaper used hints in the book to find archival proof of who she was — finding answers, oddly, from the clinic in which Berlatier had been treated for rabies. (The book’s portrait of her is not exactly happy: after getting rabies, she worked as a maid in the brothel where the ear incident would go down on December 23, 1888; her family, it seems, was in debt following her treatment, which is cited as a potential reason why the teenager began working there).
Though she was taken to Paris for treatment, she was from the village of Moulès, only around six miles from where Van Gogh resided in Arles. Tidbits had already been known — and the Art Newspaper reveals that she’d even been named as Gaby by a police officer in an article in 1936.
It’s explained that it seems Berlatier was also employed as a cleaner by the Café de la Gare, of which Van Gogh painted the famous “The Night Café,” which aimed to depict the “power of the dark corners of a grog-shop” — as he wrote in a letter to his younger brother, — somewhere “you can ruin yourself, go mad, commit crimes.”
Van Gogh allegedly cut off his left ear following a fight with Gaugin, who was staying with him at the Yellow House, and who left on Christmas day following the incident. It was formerly thought that Van Gogh had gone to the brothel and presented the ear to a prostitute he didn’t know — but this new discovery suggests that, given their potential mutual affiliation with the Café de la Gare, he may actually have known the recipient. (And that she likely wasn’t a prostitute, as it’d been presumed.) Van Gogh had allegedly gone back to bed that night and almost bled to death before police, tipped off by the ear-gifted mystery person, found him the following morning.