Why did Vincent Van Gogh cut off his ear? On a chilly Sunday evening two days before Christmas in 1888, the Dutch post-impressionist, known for paintings such as The Starry Night and Irises, used a razor blade to chop off his left earlobe in the midst of a mental breakdown. He didn't stop there. Bleeding profusely, Van Gogh wrapped his ear in cloth and walked to a brothel. He gave the appendage to one of the prostitutes, who fainted, then went home and collapsed in bed. The following morning, the prostitute called police, who found a near-dead Van Gogh covered in blood.
That's the popular version, at least. The circumstances of Van Gogh cutting his ear (or earlobe; more on that in a minute) off are one of art history's great mysteries; several theories abound as to what happened and why. Some scholars blame madness, others substance abuse. A small contingent think fellow post-impressionist Paul Gauguin was involved.
After Van Gogh lopped off his ear, he spent a year at the Saint-Paul Asylum and seemed to improve. He then shot himself on July 29, 1890, and died at the age of 37.
After cutting off his ear, Van Gogh gave it to a farmer's teenage daughter who worked in a brothel. Writing for The Art Newspaper, Martin Bailey asserts Gabrielle Berlatier lived in Mas de Faravelle in Moulès, Provence, France, where she was bitten on the arm by a rabid dog on January 8, 1888. She was immediately treated with an anti-rabies vaccine and her arm was cauterized. Her life was saved, but she had acquired a scar and medical debt.
According to Bernadette Murphy, author of Van Gogh’s Ear: The True Story, Gabrielle was most likely a maid, not a prostitute, at the brothel (for one thing, she was too young to be registered as a prostitute). The night she received Van Gogh's ear, she was "changing the sheets and washing the glasses," possibly earning money to help pay off medical debt incurred by the dog attack. She may have also worked at the Café de la Gare, which Van Gogh frequented. It was long assumed the woman to whom Van Gogh gave his ear was someone he knew only in passing. Murphy believes the pair saw each other regularly.
In her book, Murphy revealed Gabrielle's given name, but, at the request of her family, refused to publish her surname. Using medical records from the rabid dog incident, The Art Paper tracked down, and revealed, the full name of the recipient of history's most famous severed ear lobe in July 2016.
German historians Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans believe French artist Paul Gauguin (pictured above), who was adept at fencing, may have chopped off Van Gogh's ear during an argument. According to the scholars, the truth was never revealed because Van Gogh was obsessed with his friend, and didn't want Gauguin to be charged with the assault.
On the night of the incident, which occurred in Arles, Gauguin allegedly told Van Gogh he was returning to Paris indefinitely. According to Kaufmann:
"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."
Kauffman and Wildegans point to clues pulled from letters Van Gogh and Gauguin wrote one another and others that something very serious transpired between the artists the night Vincent lost his earlobe. "I will keep quiet about this and so will you," Van Gogh wrote to Gauguin.
This version of events raises some questions. Did Van Gogh bring the ear to Gabrielle so he had a cover story?
Experts have been unable to agree on what type of physical problems and mental illnesses Van Gogh suffered from. He had seizures, which may have been caused by temporal lobe epilepsy, and was born with a lesion on his brain. Exacerbated by years of absinthe use, the lesion may have contributed to his epilepsy.
Others believe Van Gogh was bipolar, as evidenced by periods of intense production followed by depression and despair. He tried to kill himself more than once, by methods such as drinking lead paint and kerosene. He may also have suffered from lead poisoning as a result of working with lead paint; symptoms include seeing halos of light around objects, such as those seen in Van Gogh's The Starry Night.
He may also have been poisoned by thujone, a toxin in absinthe. Large doses of thujone may give a yellow tint to your vision. As is evidenced by his work, Van Gogh was partial to yellow. Another possible diagnosis is sunstroke, which can cause an individual to feel nauseous and act in a hostile manner.
Since Van Gogh is dead and didn't leave any notes along the lines of "I cut off my ear because...", it's essentially impossible to know why he did what he did. Some suggest it was a call for help. Alternately, he may have been hearing things.
According to Martin Bailey, author of Studio of the South: Van Gogh in Provence, Van Gogh's medical records include a letter from 1893 describing the painter as "prey to aural hallucinations." Bailey suggests the artist sliced his ear off to make these hallucinations stop. Why he didn't stab a pencil into both ears and rupture the drums remains unclear - maybe he didn't know how ears work?