Searching for “Rachel”

Bernadette Murphy

The mystery behind the woman who was given Van Gogh's ear

Bernadette Murphy was living in the south of France, recuperating from an illness that kept her at home, when she decided to investigate the mysteries surrounding the painter Vincent van Gogh. With no formal training as a researcher or historian, she set out to piece together everything she could about the formal painter, using local archives and the long memories of the locals. In the process, she uncovered new information and details about Van Gogh’s life and put them into a book, Van Gogh’s Ear. Here, we follow along with her as she looks for the true identity of “Rachel,” the young woman to whom Van Gogh was rumored to have given his ear.

Van Gogh's Ear Bernadette Murphy
Barnes and Noble

Late one afternoon my phone rang. ‘Madame Murphy?’ The voice on the other end was slightly shaky and sounded elderly. The man introduced himself. It turned out that he was the grandson of ‘Rachel’, to whom I had sent a letter many weeks before. I couldn’t quite believe he had called; I had given few details in my letter about the reasons for my interest other than that I had come across her name in relation to Van Gogh, but he said he would be happy to meet me.

So one very hot summer afternoon I set off to meet the elderly man who I hoped would help me solve the enigma of ‘Rachel’/‘Gaby’, the girl Vincent went to see on 23 December. I was welcomed with great kindness. Despite his advanced years, he was full of stories and answered all my questions about Arles before the war. I was desperate to get to the purpose of my visit, but wanted to tread carefully. He spoke fondly about his grandmother, Gabrielle, and with great respect. As we talked he pointed to one of the photographs on the wall – a young couple on a sunny day in Provence. The woman was about thirty, smiling broadly with a warm, friendly face, standing beside an olive tree in a Provençal garden next to a seated man sporting a jaunty hat. I was finally face-to-face with the woman I had been seeking for so long. It was hard to rein in my excitement.

He showed me a second photograph; in this one she was older and looked quite different; with age, her face had become slimmer and more angular, quite different from the plump cheeks of her youth. I was surprised to see her dressed in full Arlésienne costume in both photos, which until our discussion I had believed was worn only on special occasions. He told me that Gabrielle came from a long line of Arlésiennes, and his grandmother (like her mother before her) wore her traditional costume and dressed her hair in its particular topknot style every day. He told me she had never left Arles, apart from a single trip to Paris for some medical treatment, where she had also gone to see a show with live horses on stage. He couldn’t remember the year of the Paris trip, but she had been a young girl, he said.

Finally I took a deep breath and began to explain the reason for my visit. I showed him the family tree I had drawn up and related what little I knew about Gabrielle’s life. At last I asked him whether he had ever heard of any connection between his grandmother and Van Gogh. I was in full flow, at the most crucial part of my story, when there was a knock on the door. It was the elderly gentleman’s daughter. Until that point he had been expansive and generous with his memories, but with a third person in the room he became quieter, like a child afraid of being chastised for talking too much. I tried to steer the conversation back to Gabrielle. A second knock at the door ended our discussion completely; it was a priest to see him.

I left the sunny room, saying my goodbyes. We kissed each other on the cheek and I promised I would return. The trip hadn’t been a waste of time. I had already learned so much. I always knew that confirming Rachel’s identity would take a huge amount of patience. I would have to be patient for a while longer.

Women were invariably linked to Van Gogh’s breakdowns. Before and after his breakdown in December 1888, Vincent was working on a series of paintings known as La Berceuse. These five portraits show Augustine Roulin seated, looking away from the painter, holding onto a length of rope used to rock a cradle and absorbed in something the spectator cannot see – her five-month-old daughter Marcelle. Van Gogh was planning to show the portrait as part of a triptych, between two sunflower paintings, and that motif is continued here. Madame Roulin is positioned in front of a highly decorative wallpaper-like background depicting squashed sunflower blooms. The colours are deliberately strong, reminiscent of The Night Café of early September 1888. Van Gogh wrote to Theo in January 1889, decidedly lucid about his intentions with this portrait:

Now it looks, you could say, like a chromolithograph from a penny bazaar. A woman dressed in green with orange hair stands out against a green background with pink flowers. Now these discordant sharps of garish pink, garish orange, garish green, are toned down by flats of reds and greens.

Unlike the portraits of Joseph Roulin, Vincent observes but never engages with his Berceuse – she doesn’t look out at the viewer – but appears absorbed by the mysterious mother–child bond. These are powerful images, showing Augustine indifferent to anything but her child. When suffering, it is a natural desire to have your mother near you. While painting these works with his mental health in severe decline, Vincent was metaphorically returning to the safety of unconditional maternal love. Augustine Roulin becomes a universal mother – a figure of consolation. Since the cradle is never seen, the viewer takes the place of her beloved child. This was clearly his intention, as he explains to Theo: ‘I believe that if one placed this canvas just as it is in a boat, even one of Icelandic fishermen, there would be some who would feel the lullaby in it.’

Mention of lullabies and being rocked by the sea were becoming a recurring theme in Van Gogh’s letters and featured in the hallucinations he recounted to Gauguin in early 1889. Hypersensitivity and excessive religious zeal figured throughout Van Gogh’s life and were remarked upon by others. In his letter to Albert Aurier following Vincent’s first breakdown, Émile Bernard wrote that he showed ‘extreme humanity towards women, I have borne witness to sublime scenes of devotion from him’. While a preacher in the Borinage in Belgium, he had given away his clothes to the poor and shocked the church authorities by sleeping on the floor in an effort to emulate Christ. His relationships with women were not straightforward – so often they illustrate his overwhelming desire to be their saviour from distress. A series of women run through Vincent’s life story: his landlady’s daughter in London who was engaged to another man; his widowed cousin, Kee; Sien, the prostitute, pregnant with another man’s child; Margot Begemann, who took poison in Neunen; all of whom Vincent proposed to or considered marrying. Others he immortalised in paint, such as ex-lover Agostina Segatori, a café owner in Paris, Madame Ginoux and Augustine Roulin. But the most enigmatic of all of them is ‘Rachel’. These women tend to fall into two categories: either older mother-figures or wounded angels, that only he could save.

As I studied his breakdowns in Arles, I realised each one seemed to be linked to the women in his life. His first breakdown arrived at its climax when he went to see ‘Rachel’. During a visit from Augustine Roulin at the hospital, Vincent had his second breakdown on 27 December and, despite a respite of a few weeks, he suffered his third crisis after going to see ‘Rachel’ again on 3 February 1889. His final admission to the isolation cell was shortly after Augustine Roulin left Arles in late February 1889. The coincidences are too striking to ignore. It is clear that these women were hugely significant to Vincent van Gogh, but what about the woman linked to his first breakdown: the elusive ‘Rachel’?

Something had bothered me since my meeting with Gabrielle’s grandson. I was certain that she was my girl. Yet her profile didn’t seem to fit with what I knew about the life of a prostitute in the 1880s. From the archives I had learned that it was very hard, if not impossible, ever to leave prostitution. There is a letter in the files in Arles from a baker officially requesting that his sister be released from prostitution, as he could finally take care of her financially. The reply from the official was a succinct ‘No, she must remain a prostitute.’ As they got older, most of these women ended up as brothel madams. But Gabrielle married and had a child. Something was not right.

To help us respect and understand people of all faiths and nationalities, my father used to say, ‘If you are born in a stable you are not necessarily a horse.’ As I reviewed once again all the information I had gathered on ‘Rachel’, it slowly began to dawn on me that I might have made a monumental mistake. Like every other researcher who read the contemporary newspaper story, I had assumed that just because Vincent asked for the girl at the door of the brothel, she must have been a prostitute. But what if she wasn’t?

I had found Gabrielle by accumulating tiny little details and eliminating other candidates. Although I still believed I had found the real identity of ‘Rachel’, there were a number of points that did not fit. My main issue was that Gabrielle would have been too young to be working as a prostitute. The Van Gogh biography by Pierre Leprohon, which also called her Gaby, claimed that ‘Rachel’ had been just sixteen years old when Vincent delivered his gift. In fact Leprohon had made a slight mistake: Gabrielle had died aged eighty-two, and 23 December 1888 was a few weeks after her nineteenth birthday. Nonetheless, she was still too young to be a prostitute. Moreover it seemed highly improbable that Virginie Chabaud, the proprietress of several brothels in Arles, would run the risk of losing her livelihood by employing underage women illegally.

I returned to the scene itself. Vincent knocked on the door of the House of Tolerance no. 1 in the rue Bout d’Arles on 23 December 1888. It is a tiny street and the brothels were small places with only a few girls each, where men could go for a drink and some company. I realised that in all the reports of that night there was no mention of him actually going inside the brothel. The madam’s job was to get the men to use her girls. If Van Gogh had requested one of the prostitutes, surely the brothel owner – as a sensible businesswoman – would have persuaded him to come inside? Van Gogh would have been invited in to have a drink and wait or, if the girl was busy with another client, encouraged to spend his time with one of the other girls. This never happened. From all the independent press accounts, Vincent seems to have given his ‘present’ to the girl in the street outside the brothel. This small point turned the whole story of 23 December completely on its head.

Could Van Gogh have asked for someone other than one of the prostitutes on that fateful winter night? Laure Adler’s book on Maisons de ToléranceLa Vie Quotidienne Dans Les Maisons Closes 1830–1930 – details the other jobs in the brothels: depending on the size of the business, there would be bar staff, doormen, cooks, laundresses and cleaners. The brothels in Arles were so small that these workers probably serviced the whole street, and were employed by the different proprietors. This would explain why ‘Rachel’ was later recorded as working for M. Louis, whose brothel was next door to Madame Chabaud’s.

I went back over every contemporary article about the drama, to remind myself what was said about the person Vincent asked for that night. The evidence was scant, but useful. The same newspaper stringer had written two of the articles I had uncovered and in both newspapers he called the girl ‘Rachel’. Vincent was called ‘Vaugogh’ in the article in Le Forum Républicain, and in two accounts he was described as being Polish rather than Dutch – easily explained by the similarity in pronunciation. These press reports were transmitted by telegraph and mistakes were easily made. The name Gabrielle sounds almost the same in French as Rachel. Could an error in pronunciation have occurred in her case, too? The other newspapers didn’t mention her name at all, although they provided other details I had previously overlooked. In one of the articles, published on Christmas Day, Vincent went to ‘a bawdy house . . . and asked to speak to one of its residents . . . a person came to the door and opened it’ – no mention of a prostitute. Gauguin had said that a ‘sentry’ came to the door, while Émile Bernard called the woman Vincent asked for a ‘girl from a café’, the term also employed by Le Petit Provençal. ‘Rachel’ was looking less and less like a prostitute. However, Alphonse Robert, the policeman called to the rue Bout d’Arles that night, unequivocally stated ‘the name of the prostitute escapes me, her working name was Gaby’. Even though his account was written more than forty years later, by which time Vincent and his ear had become a much-embroidered legend in Arles, it seemed unlikely that the key witness to the events of that night was wrong.

In December 1888, Alphonse Robert had been working as a policeman in Arles for just fifteen months. He was a town official whose role was to patrol and keep the peace. Local statutes outlined the duties of a town policeman: he could stop a criminal in flagrante, but he could not undertake an investigation. This meant he practically never entered private premises in Arles. The serious business of policing was left to the gendarmes. Most importantly, he would not have been privy to the official register of prostitutes. Although he would have known all the girls who worked in the area by sight, Robert would have had only superficial dealings with the inhabitants of the red-light district. Unless he used the services of the girls himself, which is fairly unlikely for a young married man with a small child, he wouldn’t have known who did what, inside the brothels of the rue Bout d’Arles.

Something had always bothered me about a phrase of Van Gogh’s in his letter of 3 February 1889. Telling Theo that he had gone to see the girl to whom he gave his ear on 23 December, he added, ‘people say good things of her’. I had always thought this was a little odd. Would people say ‘good things’ about a woman who sold her body for a living? It only made sense if she was a local girl who was liked and respected. I began seriously to consider that perhaps she was simply someone Vincent had met locally and become obsessed with, as he had done with so many women. So I spent some days with the prostitutes of 1880s Arles: I checked the women who’d been treated for venereal disease, but Gabrielle wasn’t on the list. I checked arrest records, and some of the names correlated with those treated for sexually transmitted diseases, but again she wasn’t among them. I checked newspaper reports, illegitimate births and census records again. Still no sign of Gabrielle.

I needed to talk to her family again. I had followed up some of the leads her grandson had given me during our conversation, and had done research into her time in Paris. I thought the family would find this new information interesting. Again I wrote, asking if her grandson would meet me once more. In the intervening period he had fallen ill and had difficulty speaking, and this time his son was there to help.

I reopened our discussion where we had been interrupted. I started by showing them the information I had found out about Gabrielle, including her medical records from Paris. It was exciting to share with them part of their own family history. The elderly man became tired and left me with his son; I was now finally getting to the reason for my interest. He listened to me with great patience, asking questions as I went along. Relying on quotes in Van Gogh’s letters and other information I had found, I didn’t need to explain much before he suddenly he said to me, ‘So “Rachel” is my great-grandmother.’

Sunday 8 January 1888 was a crisp sunny day in the Provençal countryside and Gabrielle’s family had gathered for lunch together at the mas (farmhouse) they owned outside Arles. They were celebrating Gabrielle’s younger brother, whose birthday had been a few days before. The party fell on the Epiphany Sunday, traditionally celebrated in Provence with the special gateau des rois. During the course of the afternoon a neighbour’s dog was seen circling near the group but no one paid it any attention. Then suddenly it jumped up and attacked Gabrielle, biting through the shawl and the sleeve that covered her left arm. She began to bleed profusely. Dog bites were a serious threat – not only could the wound become infected (and without penicillin this was a life-threatening injury), there was also a risk the dog might have rabies. If left untreated an infected patient normally died within three days. A vaccine had been used by Dr Louis Pasteur for the first time less than three years previously and its discovery had been widely reported in the local press in Arles. Gabrielle’s family acted quickly. Dr Michel Arnaud, the town’s veterinary surgeon, was summoned while a local shepherd shot the dog. The autopsy confirmed that the dog was indeed infected by rabies. Gabrielle’s wound was cauterised with a red-hot iron to kill any infection. Cauterisation gave her a better chance of survival but it was still not protection enough. There was no time to waste. A telegram was dispatched to Paris by the doctor, bags were packed and arrangements made so that Gabrielle and her mother could leave Arles for the capital that very night to receive treatment at the Institut Pasteur.

Gabrielle and her mother, dressed in traditional Arlésienne costume, arrived in Paris at 5.40 p.m. the next day. The following morning around 11 a.m. on Tuesday 10 January 1888 they went to Dr Louis Pasteur’s surgery located in the Ecole Normale Supérieure building, rue d’Ulm, where Pasteur was director of scientific research. Her medical file provides the details of her treatment – in all she would have 20 doses of the vaccine (made from the live rabies virus) between 10 and 27 January 1888. However, the file shows she was absent from the Institut on 23 January 1888. One night during her stay her mother took her to see Jules Verne’s Michel Strogoff at the Châtelet Theatre, which ended late at 11.45 p.m.; it was her first experience of the theatre. It’s possible this show fell on 22 January and might explain why she missed her injection on the 23rd.

Gabrielle was extremely impressed by what she had seen, so far from the simpler life in Arles to which she was accustomed, and she later described to her grandson the series of tableaux on stage, with ‘real horses and mirrors’ that created the effect of a whole army. She had her last inoculation on 27 January 1888 before returning to Arles. She never went to Paris again. The family had spent a lot of money on saving her life and on her return home she began working as a cleaner to help pay for her expensive treatment and save up for little treats. It’s possible that she found her job in the rue Bout d’Arles through her cousins who lived nearby.

‘Rachel’ was slowly coming into focus. Before her marriage my ‘Rachel’ – Gabrielle – worked as a maid in the brothels during the night, and in the early morning she cleaned business premises on the place Lamartine. The neighbourhood was close-knit and familiar, and Vincent must have seen her almost every day. Yet this still sheds no light on why he would choose to give her his ear. The clue came in the words Vincent said to ‘Rachel’ on 23 December, which were repeated in various forms in almost all accounts of the drama: in Gauguin’s account, Vincent apparently said, ‘Here you are . . . a memory of me.’ At first this made no sense to me. Some journalists repeated what Vincent had said, and although the wording varied from writer to writer, the meaning was the same: take great care of this for me. The local newspaper in Arles, Le Forum Républicain, quotes Vincent as saying, ‘Take this and keep it preciously,’ while the Le Petit Provençal newspaper states, ‘Take this, it will be of use to you.’ Vincent was giving the young woman something he considered extremely important. But why part of his body? And why her?

Following her accident Gabrielle was left with a significant scar that was clearly visible, even under her Arlésienne costume. As she had never been to Paris before January 1888, nor did she ever go there again, I wondered if Van Gogh met her there shortly before he left the capital. Less than three weeks after she returned south, he turned up in Arles. Two women dressed in full Arlésienne costume would have been an unusual sight in Paris at the time. However, the Institut Pasteur was south of the River Seine close to the Luxembourg Gardens. Vincent lived north of the river, so although this theory would be delightfully neat, it seemed rather unlikely. Still, he does mention the Institut Pasteur twice in his letters, most significantly in July 1888: ‘Certainly these ladies are much more harmful . . . than the citizens bitten by rabid dogs who live at the Institut Pasteur.’

A more likely explanation lay in Vincent’s recorded obsession with religion in the days leading up to 23 December. In Gauguin’s account, as told to Émile Bernard, Vincent was ‘reading the Bible and giving sermons in all the wrong places and to the most vile people, my dear friend had come to believe himself a Christ, a God’. It may seem a stretch, but I would suggest that in Van Gogh’s heightened state he gave the girl part of his own healthy body to replace her damaged flesh, and that the words he spoke that night recalled those of Christ at the Last Supper: ‘This is my body . . . do this in memory of me.’

Gabrielle was indeed at the House of Tolerance no. 1 on the night of 23 December 1888, but she was not working as a prostitute. She was changing the sheets and washing the glasses. When Vincent appeared at the brothel that rainy night, I can only imagine the shock for the poor young woman – a frenzied man comes to her place of work and hands her a sinister gift. It is no surprise she fainted. Van Gogh had a great capacity for kindness, especially for anyone he considered less fortunate than himself; he would have been touched by the meek girl he saw working so hard, with such meagre reward. He would have been moved by her damaged arm. She was exactly the sort of woman he was attracted to – a wounded angel he thought he could save.

At my request, her family kindly met me again. In the intervening months one of them had gone on a guided visit of a Van Gogh exhibition and had been outraged by what was being said by the guides about the ‘prostitute to whom Vincent gave his ear’. The family could not equate what had been said about the mysterious ‘Rachel’ with the woman they knew and loved. The perfume of scandal associated with the story scared the whole family. Devastated that her memory would be soiled, they begged me not to reveal her identity. I tried to persuade them otherwise, reasoning that my work would actually change the public’s perception of the girl to whom Vincent gave his ear. But her family were truly upset and I made a promise: until I am given permission by the family to reveal her surname, I will respect their wishes and keep it private.

Van Gogh’s act of self-harm has always been the ultimate justification of his madness. Taking his ear to a prostitute has fuelled the legend of a wayward, bohemian painter who hung around with shady individuals and was irredeemably crazy. I can’t pass judgement on him mutilating his ear. Of course it cannot be interpreted as the behaviour of a sane individual, indeed, his ‘gift’ was certainly perceived by the girl and the police as the act of a madman and reported as such by the press at the time. But giving his ear to ‘Rachel’ was part of a continuum of behaviour that had been gathering momentum throughout his adult life. Van Gogh rarely did things by half-measures. Set in the context of his past – thrusting his hand over the flame in Holland, giving away all his clothes to the poor in Belgium – his extreme behaviour in Arles looks less like a single crazy episode than an act of desperation by someone profoundly unwell. He was impetuous, intense, yet at the same time oversensitive and deeply empathic. Living mostly on his own, these traits remained unchecked. Clearly driven by his mental illness, nonetheless the motivation behind his actions was kindly intended and, within the parameters of his unbalanced mind, quite lucid.

Lust is often evoked as one of the reasons behind Vincent’s self-harm. Although it cannot be excluded entirely, there seems to be little evidence for this. Émile Bernard’s remark about witnessing Vincent’s ‘sublime scenes of devotion’ towards women, and his close bonds with Madame Ginoux and Augustine Roulin amongst others, may have had a sexual basis, though they appear to be based on admiration or devotion rather than desire. Indeed, I think it doubtful that the mousmé’s family would have let their daughter sit for hours on end with Vincent at the Yellow House if there was anything inappropriate or sexual in his behaviour towards the young girl. The discovery of the true identity of ‘Rachel’ surely alters how Van Gogh is perceived. Vincent didn’t go to the Maison de Tolérance on a whim that night and he does not appear to have been motivated simply by lust. This girl was someone he knew, someone he appeared to sympathise with. I believe that giving her the gift – part of his own flesh – was done out of genuine concern and tenderness for the young woman. The act was guided and influenced by his diminished mental state, of course, but no less noble for that.

Around 11.20 p.m. on 23 December 1888, Van Gogh set off from the Yellow House on an altruistic mission – to bring succour to a young woman in need; to help in his own particular deluded way, a wounded angel.

Van Gogh's Ear by Bernadette Murphy
Barnes and Noble



Bernadette Murphy was born and raised in the U.K. She has lived in the south of France for most of her adult life and worked in many different fields. Van Gogh’s Ear is her first book.

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