- “Still-Life: Drawing Board with Onions” is on view at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Credit: Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands
An envelope depicted in a painting by Vincent van Gogh may finally solve the mystery of why the troubled artist famously cut off his ear.
Until now, no one paid much attention to the envelope in “Still-Life: Drawing Board with Onions,” painted in January 1889. Scholars now believe that the letter was written by van Gogh’s brother Theo to share the news of his engagement. The thought of losing his brother’s emotional and financial support may very well have led to the self-mutilation.
The letter in the painting probably reached van Gogh on Dec. 23, 1888, the very day he cut off his ear. The handwriting is Theo’s, and it is addressed to van Gogh. An encircled number 67 on the envelope was used by a post office close to Theo’s apartment in Montmartre, Paris. A postmark reading Jour de l’An (New Year’s Day), was used in the 19th century by the Paris postal system starting in mid-December.
Previous theories as to what triggered the mutilation have included mental illness caused by lead paint, the end of a friendship with fellow artist Paul Gauguin, or an argument with Gauguin over a prostitute named Rachel.
The painting is part of “The Real van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters” at
the Royal Academy of Arts in London through April 18.