Van Gogh’s Ear

The truth behind history’s most gruesome ‘romantic’ gesture.

Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889) | Vincent van Gogh

As it turns out, there’s a lot we don’t know about Vincent van Gogh. The tormented Dutch Post-Impressionist painter, who committed suicide at age 37, only achieved fame after his death in 1890.

Van Gogh left a lot of questions about his life and work unanswered, especially when it comes to the gruesome story of the mutilation of his left ear. Recent debates and research into this subject are starting to dismiss the notion that this was a love story gone wrong, and are instead painting a different, darker portrait of a deeply troubled man.

First, the woman in this story is inconsequential.

Like your typical Hollywood screenplay, the woman in the twisted tale of van Gogh’s ear doesn’t have much to do with the plot. Despite what you may have heard in elementary school, the Starry Night painter didn’t cut off his ear in anguish over a lost love and then deliver it to her. Research shows that he did hand the ear off to a young woman at a brothel, but not as a romantic gesture. He left it for someone else, but for whom we can’t be sure because…

Van Gogh had beef with a couple of people.

At the time of his death, Vincent van Gogh had sold one painting and was deemed a failure by the majority of people in his life. His brother Theo, an art dealer, financially supported him throughout his career. In December 1888, Theo became engaged. Rumor has it that van Gogh may have started to unravel at the thought of losing his brother’s emotional, professional and financial support.

At the same time, Vincent lived with another Post-Impressionist, Paul Gauguin, who was distancing himself from van Gogh and planned to move out of the room they shared. Supposedly, on the night van Gogh hacked his own ear, the two had an altercation, causing Gauguin to leave the “Yellow House” where they stayed. Could this have been the impetus for van Gogh’s self-attack? Hard to say, since…

Van Gogh suffered from an undetermined mental illness.

Experts have hemmed and hawed over the causes of van Gogh’s “psychosis,” but haven’t reached a conclusion as to why his mental state seemed to deteriorate over the last 18 months of his life. The New York Times’ Nina Siegal writes, “Over the years popular theories have been floated that the artist suffered from bipolar disorder, temporal lobe epilepsy, syphilis and schizophrenia.”

Any of these disorders, paired with his suspected alcoholism, could produce bouts of psychosis, including symptoms such as “… hallucinations, acoustic hallucinations, optical hallucinations and also delusions, hyper-excitation with confusional states, incoherent speech and unclear memory about the episodes,” said Werner Strik to the New York Times.

All of these factors paint a very unclear picture of why exactly van Gogh suffered the way he did. Only recently did an amateur researcher discover exactly how the artist mutilated himself on that cold December night. Van Gogh did not cut off his entire left ear, as Kirk Douglas did while portraying the painter in the 1956 film “Lust for Life.” Rather, he sliced off part of the outer ear and almost the entire lobe. But even though we now know “how,” the questions of “what” and “why” he did what he did may still plague researchers and academics for another 150 years.

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