Today: How did Van Gogh lose his ear?
It’s common knowledge that Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear, but what scholars are still trying to piece together is why the Dutch artist was driven to such a desperate act and whether he was the one who actually did it.
Van Gogh battled depression and anxiety, and some scholars think he exhibited symptoms of bipolar disorder. One widely accepted theory is that van Gogh had a fight with French post-impressionist artist Paul Gauguin that precipitated the dismemberment on Dec. 23, 1888. After the argument, van Gogh went insane and severed his ear with a razor blade. But is this really what happened?
His Brother’s Engagement News May Have Put Him Over The Edge
Most historians agree that the painter had a breakdown, but author Martin Bailey thinks van Gogh was driven to this extreme measure because he learned his dear brother Theo was getting married. Bailey explains in the book, Studio of the South: Van Gogh in Provence, that the artist was scared that his sibling would desert him and stop supporting him emotionally and financially.
Some scholars think van Gogh found out about his brother’s wedding plans after he cut off his ear, but Bailey is adamant that the painter learned the news the same day he sliced off his appendage. The proof? There’s a letter written by van Gogh in January 1889 that mentions receiving money from Theo on Dec. 23, and Bailey is convinced the painter learned of his brother’s engagement on the same date.
“At a deeper level, there may possibly have been an element of jealousy; Theo had succeeded in finding love, whereas Vincent had failed to sustain long-term relationships,” explains Bailey.
Gauguin May Have Lopped It Off With A Sword
Another theory is that van Gogh lied about cutting off his own ear and Gauguin was actually responsible for the gruesome deed. The pair had a terrible argument, and Gauguin, a fencer, sliced it off with a sword. Van Gogh was obsessed with Gauguin and didn’t want him to get in trouble for the violent act, so he made up a story about cutting it off himself.
German historians Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans wrote Pact of Silence, which centers on the incident. They believe van Gogh was devastated that Gauguin was planning to leave Arles to return to Paris, and the painter went into a rage when Gauguin announced his plans. Van Gogh then attacked his friend, who had no choice but to defend himself.
“We do not know for sure if the blow was an accident or a deliberate attempt to injure van Gogh, but it was dark and we suspect that Gauguin did not intend to hit his friend,” Kaufmann told ABC News.
Gauguin left the day after van Gogh lost his ear. He never saw van Gogh again, but they did exchange letters. In his first letter to Gauguin, van Gogh wrote some telling words: “I will keep quiet about this and so will you.”
Van Gogh also mentioned Gauguin in a letter to his brother Theo, noting that it was lucky Gauguin didn’t possess any firearms and that he had strong “passions.”
Did Van Gogh Give The Ear To A Prostitute Or A Maid Maimed By A Rabid Dog?
It’s largely been reported that after losing his ear van Gogh gave it to a prostitute named Rachel who worked at a local brothel. Historian Bernadette Murphy, author of Van Gogh’s Ear: The True Story, believes the recipient of the ear was a maid who was disfigured from a dog bite. Van Gogh may have been deluded into thinking that he could help heal the girl by giving her a piece of his own flesh.
Murphy uncovered evidence revealing that a young woman named Gabrielle was attacked by a rabid dog one year earlier and cleaned the brothel to earn money to pay her bills. She was notable for the scar on her arm, and it’s very possible she and van Gogh knew each other because their community was small. Whether he gave her his ear is still up to debate.
Did Van Gogh Lose His Lobe Or Entire Ear?
It was long believed that Van Gogh only cut off part of his ear because his artist friend Paul Signac made the claim in a letter he wrote in 1921. Signac recalled van Gogh “cutting off the lobe and not the whole ear” in the correspondence. Upon investigation, Murphy discovered Signac never actually saw van Gogh’s wound because it was covered in a bandage.
In addition, van Gogh’s self-portraits showed his head covered in heavy-duty dressing, indicating the damage was quite significant and there was likely a lot of blood loss. Van Gogh, who spent two weeks at the hospital in recovery, also wrote letters about the infection and fever he endured in the aftermath. If he had simply cut off the earlobe, his recovery would have been much quicker and less complicated.
Murphy’s book also includes a diagram of van Gogh’s ear taken from a handwritten letter by Dr. Félix Rey, who treated the painter in the hospital. It shows that the artist severed not just his left earlobe but his entire ear.
Rey gave the illustration to American writer Irving Stone, who visited Arles in 1930 while working on a biographical novel.
“I am happy to give you the information you have requested concerning my unfortunate friend,” Rey wrote in French on the note. “I sincerely hope that you won’t fail to glorify the genius of this remarkable painter, as he deserves.”
Van Gogh is known for paintings such as “The Starry Night,” “Irises,” “The Night Café” and “Sunflowers.” He took his own life in 1890 at the age of 37.
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By Noelle Talmon, contributor for Ripleys.com