XVII: Mythbust Monday — La Oreja de Van Gogh

For those of you who aren’t Spanish speakers, the title of today’s post translates to “Van Gogh’s Ear, ” which is the name of a popular Spanish band.

When you were a kid, you probably learned the same two things I did about Van Gogh: he only sold one painting in his life, and he cut of his left ear to give it as a gift to his girlfriend. When you got older you might have found out it wasn’t his girlfriend, but his favorite prostitute.

Personally, I was taught all of this by a rather eccentric, guitar-weilding man who showed up in my second grade art class one day and sang a song that went like this: “Vincent Van Gogh, he couldn’t hear the stereo. / He saw things differently than maybe you and me. / Though mentally unstable, he really was quite able / to see things you and I could never see.”

It was a weird art class.

Anyway, the question we’re dealing with is, was Van Gogh as crazy as everyone seems to think? Did he really cut off his own ear because he thought his favorite prostitute would like it? Maybe not.

Just for a little background, Vincent Van Gogh was born in the Netherlands in 1853. He didn’t devote himself to painting until around 1883. In 1886, he moved to Paris to live with his brother Theo and pursue art more deeply. He was an extremely heavy smoker and addicted to drinking absinthe. It is suggested that he may have also had syphilis, but that’s a little iffy.

Van Gogh was a post-Impressionist painter, highly influenced by Japanese woodcuts, who worked side-by-side with other famous painters such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh’s one-time roommate, Paul Gauguin.

Gauguin and Van Gogh lived and painted together in Arles in the South of France for about nine weeks, beginning in October, 1888. Both Gauguin and Van Gogh suffered from depression and suicidal thoughts. Van Gogh — known as the “flu roux” (“redheaded madman”) to his neighbors — was preoccupied with an irrational fear that Gauguin would desert him, while Gauguin was know for his temper and his tendency to carry a rapier with him, unafraid to use it.

On December 23, 1888, after one of their many arguments (during which Van Gogh was seen threatening Gauguin with a razor blade), Van Gogh apparently cut off portions of his own left ear, wrapped the ear in newspaper, delivered it to a prostitute named Rachel, and returned home, where Gauguin found him unconscious and covered in blood.

Van Gogh was hospitalized for several days, during which time he asked for Gauguin repeatedly. Gauguin, however, told a policeman attending Van Gogh, “Be kind enough, Monsieur, to awaken this man with great care, and if he asks for me tell him I have left for Paris; the sight of me might prove fatal for him.” He then proceeded to flee to Paris, never to see Van Gogh again.

Everyone assumed Van Gogh cut off his own ear, because he was obviously insane. End of story.

Not so fast.

While it’s true that Van Gogh was very emotionally troubled, he tended to harm himself with addictive substances, rather than violence. Gauguin was also troubled, but unlike Van Gogh, people didn’t really know it. They only knew Gauguin had a temper. This leads to a very plausible theory: Gauguin, upon being confronted by his razor-blade-weilding roommate, drew his rapier and cut off Van Gogh’s ear in anger and self-defense. Realizing how bad this would look for Gauguin, Van Gogh allowed everything to think that the “flu roux” had done it to himself. A guilt-stricken Gauguin refused to see his victim and fled Arles for fear of causing him further emotional damage or incurring some sort of retribution.

It sounds possible. But can we know for sure?

No. Sorry.

There’s simply not enough evidence. No one saw what happened. We don’t have images or casts of Van Gogh’s ear to compare to the razor blade and the rapier (both of which we also don’t have). We don’t even know how much of his ear Van Gogh lost.

It seems it will always be a mystery. Either situation is equally possible and probable. Gauguin and Van Gogh, both of whom died young, poor, and troubled, took this mystery to their graves.

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