Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Van Gogh's Ear - The Mystery!

It was a toss up as to whether I was going to write about the accident last Friday morning when I stopped to help a six month pregnant woman driver who had been slammed into by an oncoming too-fast-a-driver or about the Carnival party I went to on  Sunday. It turns out that it's going to be neither because I read my friend Jacqui's Creative Journey post where she touched on Van Gogh's ear (or lack of!) and the possibility that because Cezanne had abandoned him, he sliced it off.

I have heard another theory regarding Van Gogh's (I suppose it depends on where ones comes from as to whether one says Van Go or Van Goff!) ear.

There is a belief that the lopping off of the ear had nothing to do with Cezanne or the fact that the artist did it to himself so that he wouldn't hear his critics!

According to German researchers,  Van Gogh did not chop off his own ear. It was, they say, Paul Gauguin who committed the dastardly deed.

Paul Gauguin

Outside a brothel no less! The two were known to fight about art. Van Gogh believed in painting what he saw whereas Gauguin believed one should paint from memory. On this occasion states Hans Kauffman of Hamburg University, the two friends were arguing over a prostitute named Rachel.  To get rid of Van Gogh, Gauguin waved his weapon in the direction of his friend and next thing - whoops - no left ear. No one knows if it was deliberate or an accident but Gauguin abandoned his friend who retired to bed. Both were questioned. Van Gogh said nothing and the story of self-mutilation is based entirely on Gauguin's version of the events.

'Subsequent behaviour and numerous allusions by the protagonists suggest they were hiding the truth,' Mr Kaufmann told French newspaper Le Figaro. 

Apparently, Gauguin so full of remorse, threw his sword into the River Rhone. Neither the sword nor the razor supposedly used by Van Gogh were ever found.  Had the truth come out Gauguin would have gone to prison and Van Gogh would have set up the artists' retreat he was planning.

The thinking is that because Gauguin abandoned him, Van Gogh shot himself seven months later, dying at the age of thirty seven. A possibility exists that he may have been suffering from  lead poisoning from the paints he used.  Whatever the story, in all likelihood, those who own a Van Gogh probably cannot afford to insure it!

Starry Night


  1. Actually that "Starry Night" looks a bit like a Binford-Bell! You think she was Van Gogh in a previous life???

  2. Very interesting story. I have learned something new!

  3. This reminds me of a toy "Van Gogh's ear" the kids had, made of this slimey rubbery stuff. Some friends were at the manor with their newly adopted three year old from Russia. She found that ear in the bottom of the toy basket and let out a shriek I'm sure they could hear all the way back in her motherland!

  4. I had heard the Gauguin theory too. I always rather doubted that tale because if Gauguin was so into painting from memory rather than life why did he retire to tropical isles to paint half naked Polynesian women.

    Lead, mercury (mad as a hatter because of mercury used in tanning), alcohol, and stuffy garrets filled with toxic fumes probably had a lot to do with various versions of the tale.

    Van Gogh's sanity was in doubt before he became a painter (Some would say the sanity of all painters is in doubt) so no surprise he shot himself Gauguin or no Gauguin.

    Very entertaining read, Bee. And I have both ears still.

  5. I just spoke to as close a source as you can get: a Dutch painter in Holland - LOL. And this isn't a known theory here in the Netherlands either. It's a fabulous story, though and I know the two were 'pigheaded' rivals.

    Vincent van Gogh was born and raised in Zundert, NL, where you can actually take the 'van Gogh' walk around the area he grew up in. When I did this with a Dutch friend, I realised through the artist's various free verse stuck on hammered-in posts around the walking tour that van Gogh thought deeply and tumultuously about life. As a young teen showing artistic promise, he was interned to an uncle who owned and operated a gallery in the Hague. Yet, van Gogh was restless to experience perspectives that took him beyond Holland into Belgium and France. Remember, in those days, travel to bordering countries was like one travelling from Europe to Asia these days; and, thus, quite the adventure. :)
    Vincent van Gogh's early Calvanistic convictions caused him, at one point, to preach and another - in stark contrast - to seek company at society's edge, perhaps more to connect with companionship that understood him better. Who knows if van Gogh's madness was bipolar, lead poisoning related or addictive/compulsive and the like?
    He was a living being appearing not at all at home in his own skin. And, I believe, because of it he conveyed a depth of living, moving communication that came alive on canvas. His works are often thick globs of paint that somehow reach out and grab our souls. Amazing, isn't it? (I mean, that properly proportioned globs can do that to us.)

    I've been privileged to study many of van Gogh's paintings at museums in Amsterdam, Paris and Saint Petersburg. And they've never ceased to amaze me when I stare fondly at them. I've even brushed against one with my finger, please forgive, when one of the babushka museum guides wasn't breathing down my neck or boring into me with her steely eyes. And I must shamefully confess that my briefly scandalous moment was, to me, heaven on earth - like for some as if meeting their favourite Rock Star - and I didn't wash my one little finger all day. :)

  6. Thank you for so much input. It's always interesting to read what the experts have to say.

    This is Frani's comment from multiply:


    fransformation wrote on Feb 9

    In their book, art historians Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans say that Van Gogh let everyone think he had mutilated himself in order to protect Gauguin from prosecution. This is the latest theory ... that I'm aware of.

    Interesting that I got some of my information from Kauffman.


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