Fine Art

Self portraits of Vincent Van Gogh, left, and Paul Gauguin.

Van Gogh or Gauguin: Who Really Cut Off the Infamous Ear?

May 06, 2009 03:02 PM
by Rachel Balik
Authors of a new book say that Vincent Van Gogh did not slice off his own ear: his friend and fellow painter Gauguin did. But where’s the evidence?

Witness Accounts May Point to Gauguin’s Sword

The story that painter Vincent Van Gogh cut off his own ear has long been accepted as fact. But a new book, “In Van Gogh's Ear: Paul Gauguin and the Pact of Silence,” by Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans insists that the original police reports tell a different story. They claim that Paul Gauguin sliced off Van Gogh’s ear with a sword. Their argument stems from “inconsistencies” in the original story, the BBC says. Author Kaufman explains that because the two painters were friends, they devised the tale of self-mutilation to protect the guilty Gauguin.

The loss of Van Gogh’s ear has always been emblematic of the artist’s descent into madness. Even if he did not chop the ear off himself, the writers suggest that van Gogh may have instigated the fight that caused the injury by attacking Gauguin. The Guardian reports that while the men had always been close friends, their relationship had begun disintegrate. Although they had lived together for some time, Gauguin decided to leave their shared studio in Arles, France. Van Gogh was already suffering from illness and became “aggressive.”

That Van Gogh delivered the severed ear to a prostitute named Rachel remains undisputed. The historians, who researched the book for 10 years, are unable to provide any solid evidence to back up their claim. Their argument mainly consists of a challenge to the evidence supporting the current theory; it fails to supply counter-evidence. They say that their analysis of the chain of events is the most logical one, the Telegraph reports. The prevailing expert opinion remains that Gauguin was not present at the time of the severing. However, a flicker of doubt can be found in Van Gogh’s last words to his old friend: “You are quiet, I will be, too.”

Background: A difficult friendship

The two artists became friends when Gauguin became infatuated with one of Van Gogh’s paintings, “Two Sunflowers,” displayed in a small Paris café. Van Gogh was still a struggling painter, and had helped to organize the exhibit. Gauguin was more successful at the time; he was so taken with the sunflower painting that Art Cylopedia says he offered to trade his best painting for it.

Gauguin disliked Paris, and was persuaded to join Van Gogh in Arles, where Van Gogh would paint many more sunflowers. It was when Gauguin decided to leave that Van Gogh truly lost his mind. Before the publication of “In Van Gogh’s Ear,” the accepted story was that Van Gogh followed Gauguin with a razor, ultimately using it on himself.

Key Players: Gauguin and Van Gogh


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