Former teacher Bernardette Murphy has always been curious about Vincent Van Gogh and the mysteries surrounding his ear-clipping. Little did she imagine she’d make a discovery that’s shaken the art world and resulted in a book deal and documentary. KEELEY BOLGER brushes up on the story
The 58-year-old art enthusiast and former teacher, who moved to Provence 33 years ago, was always intrigued by the ‘discrepancies’ in the Dutch Post-Impressionist’s story - particularly whether he cut off his entire ear, or just the lobe as his family claimed, and after finding herself with some time on her hands, decided to delve deeper into the archives.
“At first I didn’t know which door to knock on, I would read things and think, ‘That doesn’t make sense’,” she recalls.
“I’m a foreigner and Vincent was a foreigner, so you look at the world slightly differently. I started to look at other points and realised there were so many things that seemed wrong that I just had to ignore whatever had been written and start again, and that’s what I did. I decided I would place myself in a detective’s shoes.”
For 130 years, the art world has speculated on mysteries surrounding Van Gogh - who sold just one piece in his lifetime and whose famous works include Sunflowers and Starry Night. While his art is instantly recognisable, he’s also become known for his personal troubles: slicing off his ear, giving the grisly remains to a young girl outside a nearby brothel in Arles, France, and taking his own life two years later, aged 37.
But after seeing reference to a letter from Dr Felix Rey, who cared for him in hospital, Murphy’s curiosity was piqued and she traced the original document back to an American archive.
There, about a year into her research, she found Rey’s diagram of the artist’s ear, confirming Van Gogh had severed the whole thing, not just a section.
Holding dear to her research - which she says she “had to trust that nobody else would find; I was just lucky nobody else did” - she called the senior researcher at the museum to alert them of her discovery, which also includes the true identity of the young woman to whom Van Gogh gave his ear.
“I said to him, ‘I’ve got something new on Vincent Van Gogh’,” recalls Murphy. “I didn’t know at that point that they get hundreds of phone calls like that a week, so he was pretty relaxed on the telephone.
“And I’m going, ‘You mustn’t tell anybody’, and finally when he had given me enough assurances - I’d only met the man once, he probably thought he had some crazy person on the other end of the phone - I sent it off to him by mail and literally within seconds the phone went and he said, ‘Have you checked the signature?’
“I said, ‘Yes’. He knew it was real immediately, as I did.”
Although she was “never really a big Van Gogh fan” in the beginning, she was “moved” by seeing his paintings in real life and curious to learn more.
Seven years of meticulous research has resulted in a database of the 15,000 people who lived in Arles at the same time as Van Gogh (the first of its kind), an extensive digital archive, and worldwide attention for Murphy’s discovery. She’s netted a book deal (Van Gogh’s Ear: The True Story), and the upcoming BBC Two documentary, The Mystery Of Van Gogh’s Ear.
The hour-long film sees Murphy guide Jeremy Paxman through the fruits of her labour.
Impressed by Murphy’s studious approach, the University Challenge host praised her for “changing history”.
“He’s a sweetie, isn’t he?” says Murphy with a laugh.
“He did say to me, ‘How does it feel to change history?’ and I had never really thought about it that way, but I have. It was very nice and generous of Jeremy to say that. I was very honoured to have him on that programme.”
So how did she get on with Paxman?
“I think Jeremy’s serious, but then so am I,” she says. “And I’m not so fun and he seems a bit grumpy, so we actually just sparred off each other pretty well. From the first take, he winked at me and we were fine.
“I’d never done that [presented on TV] before; I just figured I’ve got to talk as if I’m talking with my friend.
“It’s quite nice being older - obviously, it’s a physical shock to see yourself on TV with all of your wrinkles, but other than that, you take a back seat.”
Murphy hopes her feat will give other enthusiasts the incentive to dig a little deeper.
“Definitely don’t give up,” she says. “I’m 58 now. I started this some years ago, and who would think at this time in my life, I’d have this new adventure happening to me?
“When I had got to 50, I was thinking, ‘What do you really want to do with your life?’ It wasn’t that I hated teaching, on the contrary; it was extremely interesting,” she adds. “It was just I wasn’t quite doing what I wanted to do.
“I do think it is a nice lesson for people in life... Keep on doing it. You’ll get there in the end.”
Time will tell whether she unearths any more shock discoveries, but in the meantime, Murphy’s keeping her feet on the ground and has plenty to keep busy with.
“I’ve got loads of tomatoes to cook because while I’ve been away to discuss the film and the book, they’ve all ripened,” she says with a chuckle. “I’ve got to make tomato sauce for winter, so life is normal here.”
- The Mystery Of Van Gogh’s Ear is on BBC Two on Saturday, August 6