Why Did Van Gogh Cut Off His Ear?!

You may have heard the story. Any art student or Van Gogh enthusiast would know it — Van Gogh cut off his own ear.

There are a number of theories about what really happened on that dreadful night of December 23, 1888. But the singular fact remains: Vincent Van Gogh cut off his ear.

The Official Story

Paul Gauguin was staying with Van Gogh at the (now) famous Yellow House (Van Gogh has a painting “The Yellow House” and “The Bedroom” which was in the yellow house) in Arles, France. Gauguin and Van Gogh were friends, but they had their differences. And it was not unusual that they quarrelled about their differences.

On the night of December 23, 1888, after a quarrel, Gauguin threatened to leave Van Gogh. He bolted out of the house. Van Gogh followed him outside with a sharp razor in his hand, intending to do harm to Gauguin. However, midway, he changed his mind and went back to the yellow house. There, upset, he cut off his own ear. Later, he gave it to a maid (prostitute) working at the nearby brothel that he frequented.

The following morning, December 24, police found him in the yellow house unconscious and weak from the loss of blood, and took him to the hospital. Gauguin flees to Paris.

A few months after the incident, in May 1889, Van Gogh was confined to a mental asylum, Saint Paul De Mausole, where he stayed for a year and continued painting.

Other Theories

The first among the other theories suggests that Van Gogh didn’t cut off his entire ear, but just the ear lobe. There is no definitive proof however that supports either theory. Nonetheless, it was his ear that he cut off, whether entirely or in part.

Another theory focuses on the reason why Van Gogh cut off his ear: not because of a quarrel with Gauguin, but because of his brother Theo’s engagement to be married. Van Gogh scholar Martin Bailey speculates that upon hearing of his brother Theo’s engagement, Van Gogh became desperate. It was Theo who was supporting him financially, and he felt that Theo’s engagement would tantamount to diminished financial support for himself, which he badly needed.

Lastly, in a book “Pact of Silence” (2009), authors Kaufmann and Wildegans posited that it was Gauguin who did it. However, they did not provide clear evidence to support their theory.

Van Gogh: Human, After All