On This Day: van Gogh Lost Ear, Was NOT Self-Inflicted

For years, the life, and death, of world famous Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh has been a point of fascination for historians and art enthusiasts. We know that on this day, December 23, 1888, van Gogh lost his ear. What is not so certain is the method by which it occurred.

The first report came from van Gogh’s own lips. He told hospital staff that he and his friend, French artist Paul Gauguin, had gotten into a heated dispute. The discussion stirred a bout of raging insanity and led him to cut off his own ear with a razor blade and then take it to a brothel and give the severed ear to a prostitute. He then went home and went to bed, nearly bleeding to death from the injury. He was found unconscious the next morning by French authorities, alerted by the prostitute to whom he had given his ear the following evening. The police rushed van Gogh to the nearest medical facility.

Further investigation into the matter in recent years suggests, however, that a completely different set of events took place that evening. A book written by historians Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans, titled Pact of Silence, indicates that the ear was, in reality, lost after a heated discussion between van Gogh and Gauguin.

“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 an intense 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,”

the historians say.

Kaufmann goes on to tell ABC News about their analysis of witness accounts of the story and letters written to friends and family by both of the artists after the incident. It seems the incident occurred after the two men spent a rather unhappy stay together in a place called the “Yellow House,” a studio type of apartment in Arles, France.

The historians believe that the story remained hush-hush because of a “Pact of Silence,” from which they garnered the title of their book, made between van Gogh and Gauguin. The pact was to protect both Gauguin from prosecution for injuring his friend, and the friendship between the artists, despite van Gogh’s strange and inappropriate feelings of “hopeless infatuation” for the French artist.

Kaufmann and Wildegans do not believe, however, that the injury was intentional. They further explain to ABC News that they cannot say for sure, but that “it was dark and we suspect that Gauguin did not intend to hit his friend.” They mention a letter written by van Gogh shortly after the incident, in which van Gogh wrote, “I will keep quiet about this and so will you.” The historians also found information about a letter that Gauguin wrote to another friend of his on Vincent van Gogh, calling him “a man with sealed lips,” and that he “cannot complain about him.” This implies that, whatever occurred the night of December 23, 1888, Gauguin forgave his friend. Perhaps the two maintained correspondence and buried their qualms, despite the fact that Gauguin left Arles Christmas Eve, 1888 and never again saw van Gogh.

It is no secret that van Gogh suffered from several mental illnesses throughout his 37 years, for which such a shocking act of self-mutilation might be responsible. At the hospital on December 23, 1888, he received a new diagnosis: acute mania with delirium. Intern Dr. Felix Rey suggested a sort of epilepsy, “mental epilepsy,” might play a role in his instability and health problems. However, in light of this new evidence, it seems just as likely that the argument that ensued, and a self-defense move gone wrong, is the real story behind the legend of van Gogh’s severed ear.