23rd December 1888: Vincent van Gogh cuts off his ear

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Today marks 126 years since Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh cut off his own ear. The infamous tortured artist allegedly cut off his own left ear with a razor blade in a fit of lunacy following an argument with his close friend and fellow artist, Frenchman Paul Gauguin, at his home in Arles, France. Police would later find blood all over the house and discover that Vincent had wrapped up the ear in some newspaper and given it to a girl in a “maison de tolerance” (a brothel) nearby to guard carefully.

The official story claims that the painter then fell asleep in a blood-soaked bed where he nearly bled to death and was saved by a prostitute who found him the next morning and alerted the police who then transported the troubled artist to a local hospital. Gaugin, however, refused to see the Dutch painter when he had woken up asking for him.

Vincent van Gogh is one of the most celebrated artists of all time.

Vincent van Gogh is one of the most celebrated artists of all time.

To cut off his own ear was a bit off an exaggerated reaction; it reflected, however, van Gogh’s troubled mind. The artist saw an opening with the arrival of Gaugin: an opportunity for the artists to live together, to paint together and to discuss, they could learn from one another and develop their talents together. The relationship nevertheless did not work out and following their argument van Gogh blamed himself for not being able to get along with the Frenchman.

However, two German historians believe that the traditional story was an elaborate ruse constructed to protect Gaugin. Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans claim that there is a possibility that van Gogh sought to protect Gaugin, a talented fencer actually sliced off the Dutchman’s ear in the heat of the moment during their argument. This would, they argue, explain why Gaugin refused to see his friend and told hospital staff to inform van Gogh that he had returned to Paris. Kaufmann and Wildegans explained that the true story never came to light because van Gogh and Gaugin kept a ‘pact of silence’ in order to avoid the latter’s prosecution and in the hope of van Gogh keeping his friend, with whom he was allegedly infatuated.

Kaufmann elaborated:

”We carefully re-examined witness accounts and letters written by both artists and we came to the conclusion that van Gogh was terribly upset over Gauguin’s plan to go back to Paris, after the two men had spent an unhappy stay together at the “Yellow House” in Arles, Southern France, which had been set up as a studio in the south.”

“On the evening of December 23, 1888 van Gogh, seized by an attack of a metabolic disease, became very aggressive when Gauguin said he was leaving him for good. The men had a heated argument near the brothel and Vincent might have attacked his friend. Gauguin, wanting to defend himself and wanting to get rid of ‘the madman’ drew his weapon and made a move towards van Gogh and by that he cut off his left ear.”

“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.”

Although the exact sequence of events leading up to Vincent van Gogh’s ear cutting-off is unclear, he will always be known as a troubled, tortured artist of priceless talent.

Photo credits: DecoetzeeBot

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Alex Egan is a former Features Editor at bathimpact (2014/15). She writes on politics - both national and international - as well as business.

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