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Secrets of the Dead | Van Gogh's Ear

Last Updated by WMHT Web Editor on

Watch Wednesday, December 14, 2016, at 10pm on WMHT-TV

Even those with a scant knowledge of art know about the moment when artist Vincent van Gogh looked into a mirror, held up a blade and cut into his ear. The deed was dramatized by Irving Stone in his best-selling novel “Lust for Life,” and portrayed vividly by Kirk Douglas in the 1956 film.

But did Stone get it right?  What did van Gogh really do on the fateful night of December 23rd, 1888 in the town of Arles in southern France? Afterwards, there was a successful effort by his family to play down the event.  His friend, artist Paul Gauguin, who was present, gave conflicting accounts.  Still others tried to profit from his local infamy. Generations have theorized about what really happened, but no one has unearthed the true details…until now.

Van Gogh’s Ear, broadcast as part of Secrets of the Dead, one of PBS's longest running, limited primetime series, delves into the artist’s state of mind on the night he committed his notorious act of self-harm and offers fascinating evidence discovered by researcher Bernadette Murphy. 

Murphy, an independent researcher living in Provence, had long been intrigued by van Gogh’s story and spent seven years piecing together a meticulous picture of his life in Arles (1888-9); person by person, house by house, exploring closely his friends and his enemies.

Her detective work uncovered definitive long-lost evidence, which graphically reveals exactly what happened that night, who was involved and how it ultimately shaped van Gogh’s remarkable art. Murphy finally provides answers to the mystery that has divided art historians for decades.

Van Gogh’s Ear focuses on van Gogh’s time in Arles including the visit from artist Paul Gauguin which proved to be life-changing, weaving together a detailed timeline of the momentous events. Following Murphy’s meticulous research and a reexamination of van Gogh’s work, the film reveals the artist’s rollercoaster of emotions and his mental health, placing his actions in proper context for the first time.