On the Verge of Insanity re-examines Vincent van Gogh’s mental health struggles


Fresh perspective based on newly discovered archival medical documents

By Jessica Wong, CBC News

Rather than an artistic genius whose madness fuelled his output, Vincent van Gogh was able to create incredible paintings despite his fierce struggle with mental illness — including his infamous slicing off of his own ear — according to a new exhibition in Amsterdam.

On the Verge of Insanity, set to open Friday at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, challenges the romantic (and prevailing) notion that the Dutch master was a “mad genius” who found release by painting. 

Combining van Gogh artworks, newly discovered archival medical documents and even a severely rusted pocket revolver found in the field where he fatally shot himself, the exhibition explores how debilitating mental illness affected his artistic output at the end of his life.

One of the show’s revelations is that on Dec. 23, 1888, in Arles, France, van Gogh took a blade and sliced off his entire left ear and not simply a portion of it, as was previously thought.

The gory discovery was made by Bernadette Murphy, a Provence-based British historian who has been researching van Gogh’s final days for a new book.

While searching a California archive, Murphy discovered a diagram of van Gogh’s severed ear drawn by Dr. Félix Rey, the physician who treated the artist after his notoriously extreme act of self-mutilation (and was captured in a portrait by van Gogh afterward as thanks).

“This investigation has been an incredible adventure and discovering the document was an extraordinary moment,” Murphy said in a statement Tuesday.

“It was a vital detail in my complete re-examination of this most famous of artists, the key people he met in Arles and his tragic end.”

The medical diagram, a note Dr. Rey wrote about the incident, a police report about it and a 1889 petition by the artist’s neighbours calling for van Gogh to be institutionalized are among the documents to be displayed to the public for the first time as part of the exhibition Van Gogh, who was known to suffer from depression and experienced delusions and psychotic attacks, shot himself in Auvers-sur-Oise, dying two days later on July 29, 1890.

Though he sold little of his art during his lifetime, his paintings and tragic story attracted interest after his death through the diligent efforts of his sister-in-law, Johanna.

Murphy’s book, Van Gogh’s Ear, was published Tuesday in conjunction with the forthcoming exhibit. She is also collaborating on an upcoming BBC documentary on the topic.

On the Verge of Insanity runs Friday through Sept. 25 at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.


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