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The tale of the Van Gogh note

Van Gogh's self portrait, the Bancroft Library document on Van Gogh's severed ear, and the artist's depiction of Dr. Félix Rey. (Images courtesy Van Gogh Museum and Bancroft Library)
Van Gogh’s self portrait, the Bancroft Library document on Van Gogh’s severed ear, and the artist’s depiction of Dr. Félix Rey. (Images courtesy Van Gogh Museum and Bancroft Library)

On August 18, 1930, Vincent Van Gogh’s doctor drafted a small, unassuming note describing the artist’s severed ear. Over the next 86 years, the note traveled from its home in Arles, France, to the United States with author Irving Stone and eventually to The Bancroft Library in Berkeley. The document will make a television appearance in the PBS special Van Gogh’s Ear on Wednesday, December 14 at 10 p.m. (locally on KQED 9). Here is the story of its 86-year path, from a first-person perspective of the document itself …

August 1930: I started out today, August 18, as a piece of ordinary paper in a prescription pad. I had been patiently awaiting my chance to become something. I now have not one, but two, drawings that illustrate how much of Vincent Van Gogh’s ear was cut off on December 23, 1888. The doctor who treated the artist decades ago, Dr. Félix Rey, crafted the document in black ink specifically for author Irving Stone, and included the note:

I’m happy to be able to give you the information you have requested concerning my unfortunate friend Van Gogh. I sincerely hope that you won’t fail to glorify the genius of this remarkable painter, as he deserves.

Cordially yours,
Dr. Rey

1930-1994: I am now in the possession of Stone and, as it turns out, I am going to be part of something big. Stone had been in Europe researching Van Gogh for an upcoming book, Lust for Life, and that is just where I met him. I’m told the biographical novel about Van Gogh, published in 1934, has the potential to jumpstart Stone’s writing career.

December 1994: After enjoying many years with Stone and his wife, Jean, I am now on my way to UC Berkeley, where Stone received his bachelor’s degree and pursued a doctorate. I am excited that some familiar faces will be joining me in the famed archives at The Bancroft Library. I am part of a collection of over 550 boxes that consist of Stone’s correspondence; research material, drafts, publicity, and ephemera related to his writings; professional and personal papers; and subject files, along with some of Jean’s papers.

As luck would have it, I am now sharing my new home with other notes and documents that Stone gathered about Van Gogh. I’m in a folder, in a box, on a shelf in the Library’s archives. It’s quite dark in here (they say the dark is good for me in my old age). But, not to worry, I am confident something big awaits me one day. I am in box 91, which sounds like a very important number.

January 2010: I was taken off the shelf, out of my box and freed of my folder by archivist David Kessler at The Bancroft Library! It turns out that author Bernadette Murphy, an Englishwoman living in France, had a hunch that I existed, and that I was something special. I’ve received the royal treatment since that box opened. I was even scanned!

July 2016: Murphy’s book, Van Gogh’s Ear: The True Story, has been published. The book has been said to cast “dramatic new light on one of history’s most famous episodes of self-harm, neatly and convincingly skewering many long-held myths.” And, some might venture to say I’m a star. Apparently the note Dr. Rey wrote on little-old-me ends decades of dispute about how much of Van Gogh’s ear was severed.

Things are really starting to get interesting. I’m on my way to Amsterdam for an extended stay at the Van Gogh Museum. I’m now framed (big upgrade from that folder). I will travel by plane with Bancroft Library curator David Faulds and some security, too.

November 2016: After a few months in Amsterdam, I am headed back to Berkeley, where I will be on display for a short while before returning to cozy box 91. I must say, it was quite nice to sit among the revered paintings of Van Gogh. I hadn’t seen that much color in years. Curator Faulds is traveling on coach from Berkeley to Amsterdam. I am told that, thanks to me, we get to ride business class back to the United States (I’ll be in the overhead bin).

Thankfully, my days of fame aren’t over quite yet. I will be featured in a PBS documentary in December. And, of course, there’s always the possibility another inspired researcher will seek me out at The Bancroft Library. I am hopeful there could be more adventures ahead!

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