Sunday, December 23, 2007

This Day in History...

On December 23, 1888, about 11:30 pm, van Gogh walked into Madame Virginie Chabaud's maison de tolérance [brothel] at Number 1, Rue du Bout d'Arles in Arles, and asked for a girl called Rachel. He handed her a piece of his ear, wrapped in newspaper. Why he mutilated himself, and why he chose to take the grisly gift to Rachel, we'll probably never know.

When I visited Arles back in May, I walked down the former Rue du Bout d'Arles, now the Rue des Écoles. It's a short, still rather gritty street, a few minutes' brisk walk from the original site of Vincent's yellow house. Both brothel building and yellow house are gone now--victims of WW II bombings--so you have to use your imagination in reconstructing the scene. You have to use your imagination in reconstructing van Gogh's entire neighborhood around Place Lamartine, since the public garden he once frequented and painted is now mostly a car park, the former Café de la Gare is a vacant lot, and the once-gendarmarie is now a Monoprix. But something about the Rue des Écoles on that sunny Sunday afternoon, something about standing on the sidewalk in front of the hollowed-out spot where Rachel's brothel used to be, gave me a little chill. Call it my own over-active imagination, but it did.

The best recent analysis of December 23, 1888, can be found in Martin Bailey's article, "Drama at Arles: New Light on Vincent van Gogh's Self-Mutilation" in the journal Apollo (Sept 2005) 31-41.

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