Vincent van Gogh’s fame may owe as much to a legendary act of self-harm, as it does to his self-portraits. But, 119 years after his death, the tortured post-Impressionist’s bloody ear is at the centre of a new controversy, after two historians suggested that the painter did not hack off his own lobe but was attacked by his friend, the French artist Paul Gauguin.
According to official versions, the disturbed Dutch painter cut off his ear with a razor after a row with Gauguin in 1888. Bleeding heavily, Van Gogh then walked to a brothel and presented the severed ear to an astonished prostitute called Rachel before going home to sleep in a blood-drenched bed.
But two German art historians, who have spent 10 years reviewing the police investigations, witness accounts and the artists’ letters, argue that Gauguin, a fencing ace, most likely sliced off the ear with his sword during a fight, and the two artists agreed to hush up the truth.
In Van Gogh’s Ear: Paul Gauguin and the Pact of Silence, published in Germany, Hamburg-based academics Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans argue that the official version of events, based largely on Gauguin’s accounts, contain inconsistencies and that both artists hinted that the truth was more complex.
Van Gogh and Gauguin’s troubled friendship was legendary. In 1888, Van Gogh persuaded him to come to Arles in the south of France to live with him in the Yellow House he had set up as a “studio of the south”. They spent the autumn painting together before things soured. Just before Christmas, they fell out. Van Gogh, seized by an attack of a metabolic disease became aggressive and was apparently crushed when Gauguin said he was leaving for good.
Kaufmann told the Guardian: “Near the brothel, about 300 metres from the Yellow House, there was a final encounter between them: Vincent might have attacked him, Gauguin wanted to defend himself and to get rid of this ‘madman’. He drew his weapon, made some movement in the direction of Vincent and by that cut off his left ear.” Kaufmann said it was not clear if it was an accident or an aimed hit.
While curators at the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam stand by the theory of self-mutilation, Kaufmann argues that Van Gogh dropped hints in letters to his brother, Theo, once commenting : “Luckily Gauguin … is not yet armed with machine guns and other dangerous war weapons.”
Postscript: Years ago, I was visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York for the first time. If you love art, losing your MOMA virginity is an act of sensory overload; every time you turn a corner, another iconic painting or sculture greets you in the flesh, so to speak. Up ahead, I could see Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” and I was patiently waiting for two older ladies to move on; so I could see one of my all-time favorite paintings up close, when I overhead a conversation that went something like this:
Woman #1: You know, that was the view from his hospital window.
Woman #2: From the asylum?
Woman #1: Yes. Isn’t that amazing?
Woman #2: It’s too bad he didn’t have a better view so those trees wouldn’t be in the way.