Van Gogh’s Ear

Details Behind the Mutilation

Everyone knows who Vincent van Gogh is, and most everyone knows that at some point during his life he severed his own ear. However, from what I’ve noticed it seems like people, including myself, have a vague understanding as to why. This week I wanted to take a look at the story behind his dismembered ear, and hopefully add some clarity to the mystique behind this madness.

Van Gough was a Dutch painter who is often categorized amongst the most prominent post-impressionists of his day. His unique style is instantly recognizable, rendering him one of my personal favorites when it comes artwork in general, and he is also one of my favorites because of how specifically interesting and challenged he was by his mental condition. In my Art in the Modern Era class we discussed him, but I wanted to explore the loss of his ear in more detail, discussing what led to it and what the outcome was.

Towards the end of the 19th century, Van Gogh was living in The Yellow House, the right wing of 2 Place Lamartine, Arles, France with his close friend and colleague Paul Gauguin, another famous post-impressionist of a similar variety to Van Gogh. Together they worked, bonded, fought, inspired, and disparaged each other. Their relationship was described as extremely complex and often strained.

While the specific events leading to his mutilation are hazy, according to Gauguin, after multiple days of aggressive confrontation on Van Gogh’s behalf, a particularly tough argument ensued leading him to sever his ear with a razor later that night. Afterwards, Van Gogh would travel to a brothel he and Gauguin often frequented, presenting his paper-wrapped ear to a woman who was later to be discovered as “Gabrielle” at age 80 in 1952 by Art Historian Bernadette Murphy. Gabrielle was only a 17-year-old cleaner at this brothel.

Police later found him unconscious and bloody in his bed the following morning, admitting him to a hospital where he was found to have “acute mania with generalized delirium,” a.k.a. he had amnesia of the whole event, indicating that he had endured a mental breakdown of a severe form.

Gauguin would flee Paris and tell police that, upon being summoned by Van Gogh, they should break the news of his escape to him as lightly as possible and to emphasize that “the sight of me might prove fatal for him.” Gauguin would never see Van Gogh again, despite them maintaining correspondence a few years later.

Van Gogh would return to the Yellow House where he continued to work, continuously suffering from delirious episodes and irrational fear of poisoning… however this fear was not so irrational by today’s standard. Often times paint was made with lead during the time of the post-impressionist, leading modern historians to believe that it is entirely possible Van Gogh was actually suffering from lead poisoning.

He would go on to paint a portrait of the physician who cared for him during his stay in the hospital, the young doctor Félix Rey. Rey was ill-receiving of the portrait and ended up giving it away.

Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Félix Rey, January 1889

Featured Image: Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889

Source 1, Source 2

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.