Thursday, October 22, 2009

*The* Newspaper Article

Since this weekend's Festival of Reading is sponsored by the St. Petersburg Times, it only seems appropriate to post about THE newspaper article that best records the notorious "ear incident" and that inspired the writing of Sunflowers.

Pictured here is a clipping from Le Forum Republicain, the Sunday newspaper of Arles. The article is from the 30 December 1888 edition, one week after Vincent's self-mutilation. The article begins, "Last Sunday at 11:30pm, one Vincent Vangogh[sic], painter of Dutch origin, presented himself at the maison de tolerance no. 1, asked for one Rachel and gave her...his ear, saying 'Guard this object very carefully.' Then he disappeared." The article goes on to explain that the police went to Vincent's house and found no sign of life in the patient, then that he was taken to hospital.

The clipping as pictured here is misleading, as I discovered in my research for the book. I'd always seen the article photographed this way--the same picture appears in all the van Gogh literature--so I assumed it was the 'top story' in the paper that week. It wasn't. The "Chronique locale" (local news) section is actually on the back page. The news item about Vincent was not as prominent as it appears in this photograph; the original photographer cut and pasted the newspaper for the picture. Even so, it's easy to imagine shocked faces around the breakfast table that particular Sunday. All the more so considering that Le Forum Republicain had featured multiple editorials in the past about the prevalence of brothels and unregistered streetwalkers in the town. Even though prostitution was legal in the sense that it was regulated by the government (with strict laws), many townspeople did not approve. Of especial concern, it seems, were the number of prostitutes illegally frequenting the cafes around the Arles train station, in other words, the area where Vincent lived.

The article is noteworthy as the only known historical document that calls Rachel by name. The observation that Vincent asked for her specifically at the brothel reveals he knew her, and my question is, How much and how well? That question inspired the story that emerges in Sunflowers.

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