Vincent van Gogh- Self portrait with bandaged ear 1889

Why Did van Gogh Cut Off His Ear? 

Popularly known as “the artist with a severed ear” but only a few know why he did it to himself. It’s convenient to think of him as one of those eccentric artists who are half crazy and the other half super talented. However, several events led up to him cutting off his ear. These events may be interesting to some and painful to the empaths. So why did van Gogh cut off his ear?

Where did he do it?

Van Gogh rented a small apartment in Arles, France in 1888, in beautiful countryside. Artists of today would call it an “art studio” however it was a much more humble space than we can imagine. This house had some characteristic yellow furniture and was also painted yellow on the outside. Vincent often depicted this bright yellow furniture in his now iconic artworks. Some of these paintings are ‘The Bedroom’ and ‘Yellow House’. 

His friendship with Gauguin

Since his art wasn’t profitable at the time, van Gogh had to take financial help from his brother Theo to survive. Living alone, and somewhat independently, Vincent could now concentrate on his art. Van Gogh was close friends with the famous painter Paul Gauguin. Upon moving to his art studio, he enthusiastically invited Gauguin where they could collaborate and study different art styles. 

The reason why Gauguin accepted the invitation is unclear and different historians have varying opinions. According to some, Gauguin was heavily persuaded by the promise that Theo would take care of their finances. However, there is no firm evidence that states the same. Anyhow, whether it was out of pure artistic intentions or financial gain Gauguin soon started living with Vincent. Media representations of van Gogh and Gaugin’s friendship inadvertently romanticize their relationship way out of proportion. Again, there is no proof of a romantic relationship between the two. However, thinking that something romantic existed sure makes the story more interesting. 

Upon receiving van Gogh’s invitation Gaugin wrote back to him confirming his arrival in October. He wrote that he was excited to witness “miles and miles of the countryside of different kinds with autumn splendors.” It was during this time, while he waited for Gaugin, Vincent painted a simple scene of his room in the painting ‘The Bedroom’. The proof of the painting’s timeline comes from Vincent’s letter to Paul. He mentions he had an eye problem because of which he was forced to stay indoors and created a painting of his room. 

As seen in van Gogh’s recent biopic, the artists collaborated in the yellow house for a few months. They shared their costs, discussed art, and drank lots of absinthe. However this “honeymoon period” was short-lived. 

Why did van Gogh Cut Off His Ear

Very little is known about what exactly happened on the night of 23rd December 1888, in that studio in Arles. The most common theory is that soon van Gogh started to dip into Gauguin’s finances because he couldn’t pay for himself. A small quarrel kept intensifying and things soon escalated. On the spur of the moment, Vincent took a blade in his hand. Soon afterward he cut off his left ear in a feverish rage. 

Bedroom in Arles by Vincent Van Gogh
Bedroom in Arles

The second story is very similar but the topic of their verbal fight is different. It is believed that Gauguin and Vincent often debated about art and sometimes even the very nature of art. In one of these instances, Vincent got extremely overwhelmed. He finally resorted to cutting off his ear with a knife. 

A common emotion in both these stories is that it seems like van Gogh blows things out of proportion. Some underlying emotional problem has to exist for someone to mutilate themselves. The only witness of this event is Paul Gauguin. So we have to take his word for what occurred between the two because Vincent was incoherent after this incident. 

The Aftermath

Just after he cut off his ear, Gauguin left the premise. Some witnesses report that Vincent wrapped his severed ear in a piece of cloth and presented it to a prostitute in a nearby brothel. The next morning the police found Vincent curled up in his bed. Gauguin also arrived at the Yellow house that morning along with the police. However, this was the last he saw of his dear friend Vincent. 

Van Gogh was admitted to the hospital under the care of doctor Félix Rey. In one of his letters, he says that the severed ear was given to him a little too late to be reattached. However, he did preserve it in an alcohol solution and kept it on his desk. The ear would probably be worth a hefty sum today, however according to Rey, it just “disappeared” from his office in his absence. 

Now there has been an ongoing debate about how much of his ear did van Gogh cut off? The answer comes from eyewitnesses. However, the most credible information comes from doctor Rey himself. The importance of this debate lies in its implication for van Gogh’s mental state. Theorists and psychologists believe that cutting off the whole ear could be indicative of suicidal tendencies. However, cutting off a part would imply a plea for help. 

The first witness is Gauguin. In one of his letters to a fellow artist, Gauguin describes the whole incident that had occurred on the 23rd of December. He mentions that van Gogh cut his ear off completely. However, Gauguin only saw his wound which was completely covered with coagulated blood. Therefore it must have been difficult to judge how much he cut off. 

Van Gogh’s sister-in-law reported in a memoir that he had only cut a part of his ear. She saw him for four days while he visited her 2 years after the incident. 

One of the policemen involved in the case reported that Vincent cut off the whole ear. While a few others who visited him shortly afterward said that it was only a part of the ear and not the whole of it. 

Dr. Rey had treated Vincent the day after the incident and the following is the sketch he drew of Vincent’s mutilated ear. It is clear that a very small part of the lobe was left intact while the remaining was cut off.  

Note from Félix Rey to Irving Stone with a sketch of Vincent van Gogh’s mutilated ear, 18 August 1930. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

However, this was many years after the incident are there is a chance that Dr. Rey’s memories might not be accurate. 

Conclusion

It seems as if the events that occurred in Arles were a precursor to his deteriorating mental health. Within a year of this incident, van Gogh took his life. Before this incident as well Vincent showed many signs of mental illness as reported by the people around him. 

Well, we can’t expect him to get the right psychiatric care in the 19th century, where even today we lose so many lives to mental illnesses. Thus, it would be fruitless to think that if only the people close to him gave him the right psychiatric help, his life wouldn’t end so tragically. Makes you believe in destiny, no?  

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