Most art fans have heard the story of Vincent van Gogh cutting off his own ear and giving it to his favourite prostitute. But does anyone know what really happened?
The story goes that the combination of van Gogh’s heavy drinking of absinthe, smoking, and possible poisoning from lead based oil paints, led the artist to a madness which caused him to slash off his ear on December 23, 1888, and then commit suicide in 1890.
In their book “Van Gogh’s Ear: Paul Gauguin and the Pact of Silence”, Hamburg, Germany based art historians Hans Kaufman and Rita Wildegans present a different theory. The pair spent ten years reviewing French police investigations, witness accounts, and the artist’s personal letters. They believe that fellow artist and friend Paul Gauguin, who was known to have had a collection of weapons including fencing swords, cut off van Gogh’s ear in self-defense.
Gauguin stayed with van Gogh in Arles, France and the two worked together for about two months. The tension between the artists grew and they quarreled often. Van Gogh was vulnerable and hyper-sensitive, and a bullying and egocentric Gauguin often threatened to leave. This was too much for the unstable van Gogh who, in his state of despair, came after Gauguin with a cut-throat razor.
Until recently, it was thought that van Gogh turned his anxiety over Gauguin on himself and severed his own ear and Gauguin, upset by his friend’s state of mind, left Arles. However, Kaufman and Wildegans believe that Gauguin, fed up with van Gogh’s mental instability, decided to leave the house after van Gogh threw a glass at him during an argument. A crazed van Gogh followed him and things became violent. Gauguin, either in anger or self-defense, lopped off part of van Gogh’s left ear.
They believe that van Gogh was so devoted to his friend that he did not report the attack and the two continued to write letters to each other. This theory is based on a phrases that van Gogh wrote to Gauguin and his brother including: “You are quiet, I will be too” and “pact of silence”. As well, van Gogh’s letter to his brother Theo describes Gauguin’s aggressive character. He wrote it was lucky Gauguin didn’t have a machine gun or other firearms.
Whether the wound was self-inflicted or not, there is no doubt that Van Gogh, bleeding from his wound, staggered into a bordello and gave a prostitute friend named Rachel his severed ear, telling her to ‘keep this object carefully’. He returned to his house where he nearly died from loss of blood and for weeks he spent his time between the hospital and home, continually crying out for Gauguin.
In July 1890, van Gogh moved to Auvers sur Oise, under the care of doctor Paul Guichet but a few days later, he shot himself in the chest and died two days later.