How did van Gogh really lose his ear?

The story of van Gogh cutting off his own ear and then giving it to a prostitute is a widely known art historical legend. Yet unlike many legends this one is true. Scholars have long known that van Gogh, after an argument with Paul Gauguin on the evening of December 23, 1888, took a razor and cut off part of his left ear. He then wrapped the piece in some newspaper and gave it to a prostitute named Rachel. Following this episode, the artist was hospitalized and eventually decided to enter into an asylum for long-term treatment. In the wake of the incident Gauguin left the Yellow House in Arles, where the two had been living, never to return, although he and Vincent remained in contact.

That van Gogh’s ear was mutilated is certain: documentary sources as well as the artist’s paintings of himself with a bandaged ear attest to this fact. But recently two German scholars have questioned whether van Gogh is to blame. Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans, in their book Van Goghs Ohr: Paul Gauguin und der Pakt des Schweigens (“Van Gogh’s Ear, Paul Gauguin and the Pact of Silence,” Berlin: Osburg, 2008), argue that it was Gauguin who cut off van Gogh’s ear, doing so with a fencing sword during an argument. They base their claims on a variety of sources associated with the event, including police records, van Gogh’s own letters, and theories on the artist’s mental condition at the time.

Vincent van Gogh, self -portrait with a bandaged ear, 1889, oil on canvas, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Vincent van Gogh, self -portrait with a bandaged ear, 1889, oil on canvas, The Courtauld Gallery, London

According to Kaufmann and Wildegans’ theory, Gauguin and van Gogh were arguing over the prostitute Rachel and the best way to paint. When van Gogh became hysterical at Gauguin’s threatening to leave Arles, Gauguin brandished his fencing sword (he was an amateur fencer) and accidentally sliced off part of his friend’s ear. The two artists then hid the truth in their police statements, likely to protect Gauguin from prosecution.

To support their case, the authors point to inconsistencies in the police records and cryptic statements in the artists’ letters, although they admit their evidence is ultimately inconclusive. Most van Gogh scholars remain unconvinced, even if they find the theory interesting and recognize that Kaufmann and Wildegans have done an admirable job analyzing the documentary evidence. Ultimately the debate points to the continued interest in and fascination with van Gogh. Stories such as this one are a part of our cultural heritage, as much or more so as the artist’s paintings and drawings.

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