Vincent van Gogh’s Ear

Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890): Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889. Created in Arles, France. Oil on canvas, 51 x 45 cm. Private Collection.

Then again, he might not have cut off most of his left ear.

So say two German art historians, Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans,* who argue that Paul Gauguin, not Vincent, sliced off most of van Gogh’s ear with a rapier, either in anger or self-defense, perhaps accidentally, in a heated disagreement. Speculation supporting the official tale of Vincent slicing off most of the ear in a fit of madness and then presenting it to a prostitute, is as debatable as the version of Gauguin doing the deed.

Following ten years of researching police reports, letters and other biographical material, the historians concluded that in order to keep Gauguin out of jail and in an attempt for Vincent to maintain the friendship, the two artists conspired to a crime cover-up and to remain quiet about the incident for the remainder of their lives — in a “pact of silence.”  They report that at the time of the incident: Vincent was not yet mad, but only experienced seizures. No one witnessed the actual event. Vincent van Gogh had a strong infatuation with Gauguin. And there were references by each of the artists suggesting a complexity beyond the official story. Commonly reported, the first letter from van Gogh to Gauguin following the incident included, “I will keep quiet about this and so will you.” Years later, in a letter from Gauguin referencing van Gogh, “A man with sealed lips, I cannot complain about him.”

Whatever the facts of the tragic event on the night of December 23, 1888, nine wondrous weeks ended of two masters producing works of art that proved pivotal in the course of the development of modern art.

— Jules Cavanaugh

* “Van Goghs Ohr: Paul Gauguin und der Pakt des Schweigens ” (Van Gogh’s Ear: Paul Gauguin and the Pact of Silence) by Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans, Osburg, 2008.

Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, Post-Impressionism, 1853-1890): Self Portrait with Palette, 1889. Created in Arles, France. Oil on canvas, 57 x 43.5 cm. Private Collection

Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890): Self Portrait with Palette, 1889. Created in Arles, France. Oil on canvas, 57 x 43.5 cm. Private Collection

Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, Post-Impressionism, 1853-1890): Paul Gauguin (Man in a Red Beret), 1888. Oil on canvas, 37 x 33 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890): Paul Gauguin (Man in a Red Beret), 1888. Oil on canvas, 37 x 33 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, Post-Impressionism, 1853-1890): Self-Portrait with Straw Hat, Summer 1887. Oil on artist board, mounted to wood panel; 34.9 × 26.7 cm (13-3/4 x 10-1/2 inches). Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan, USA.

Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890): Self-Portrait with Straw Hat, Summer 1887. Oil on artist board, mounted to wood panel; 34.9 × 26.7 cm (13-3/4 x 10-1/2 inches). Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan, USA.

Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, Post-Impressionism, 1853-1890): Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889. Oil on canvas, 60.5 x 50 cm. The Courtauld Gallery, London, UK.

Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890): Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889. Oil on canvas, 60.5 x 50 cm. The Courtauld Gallery, London, UK.

Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890): Portrait of Doctor Paul Gachet, 1890. Auvers-sur-oise, France. Oil on canvas, 67 x 56 cm (26.4 x 22 inches). Private Collection.

“I’ve done the portrait of M. Gachet with a melancholy expression, which might well seem like a grimace to those who see it… Sad but gentle, yet clear and intelligent, that is how many portraits ought to be done… There are modern heads that may be looked at for a long time, and that may perhaps be looked back on with longing a hundred years later.” (Vincent van Gogh, letter to Theo)


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