Why did Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear?

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) is among the world’s most popular artists, yet in his lifetime he sold few works and was instead more famous for mutilating his own ear. What drove a painter at the peak of his prowess to injure himself so greviously? Art historian Bernadette Murphy delves into Van Gogh’s greatest mystery...

'Self Portrait' by Vincent van Gogh, autumn 1887 (Photo by Marc DEVILLE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

On 24 December 1888 in Arles, a small town in southern France, young Louis Rey woke up extremely excited. It was his birthday, and as a special treat Louis was going to spend the day with his brother Félix, a junior doctor at the public hospital. Hoping to follow in his footsteps, Louis couldn’t wait to be his brother’s shadow for a whole day.

Advertisement

Late December was a quiet time of year at the hospital, so Louis could barely contain himself when, mid-morning, a horse-drawn ambulance rattled into the courtyard. Dr Félix Rey gave instructions for the semi-conscious man to be taken directly to the emergency room on the ground floor, and gestured for Louis to follow.

The young boy left his recollections of the patient that was treated that Christmas Eve morning: “Around his head he wore a grubby piece of cloth, like farmers do if they have toothache. Félix carefully unwrapped the cloth and I noticed that the rags were soaked with blood along one side of the head. Using hydrogen peroxide my brother carefully detached the primitive bandage which was stuck to the victim’s cheek because the blood had coagulated. I watched the operation closely…”

Louis then realised that the dishevelled man was someone he had seen around town for some months – a strange-looking man with bright red hair and piercing blue eyes.

“My brother brought the bleeding to a stop and disinfected the wound. Then he put on a clean bandage around his head and I had the honour of handing him the scissors. Félix now called the head nurse with whom he completed the formalities to take the injured man to hospital ward.”

Neither brother would ever forget that day, the strange patient, nor what they saw…

Vincent van Gogh: man of mystery

Vincent van Gogh is among the world’s most popular artists, his paintings – now worth millions – spread through museums all over the world. Yet, Van Gogh’s career was short – he sold very few works in his lifetime – and he only painted full-time for the last five years of his life. From the sombre tones of ‘The Potato Eaters’ (1885), Van Gogh’s art burst into colour during the short time he spent in Provence, creating his greatest work in Arles in 1888. Reproduced as souvenirs and posters, these paintings with their strong, bright colours are familiar to us all.

Van Gogh isn’t known simply for his painting, though, but for a strange incident in his private life, which extends far beyond the art world. This part of his life story has made him unique. He is the man who ‘cut off his ear’.

Ever since his death in 1890, Van Gogh’s life has become a tragic tale in which fact and fiction have become blurred. This ‘Vincent’ – a half-starved, shabby figure, with no money nor friends, pushed his creativity to its limit “under the burning heat of the southern sun” and so went mad. This is the legend, but little of it is true.

Since his death in 1890, Van Gogh’s life has become a tragic tale in which fact and fiction have become blurred

Amongst all the great artworks that Van Gogh painted in Arles, two stand out and are still compelling 130 years after the brush was applied to canvas. At the time they were painted, ‘Mr Vincent’ – as he was known in Arles – was living at 2, place Lamartine, the so-called Yellow House. Completed a week apart, they bear similar names – one is titled ‘Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear’, the other ‘Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe’. Both show the artist trying to comprehend his breakdown, courageously displaying himself at his lowest ebb with a unique, raw honesty. These paintings resonate with, and haunt, the spectator – they are unforgettable.

Van Gogh’s painting ‘The Yellow House’, 1888
Van Gogh’s ‘The Yellow House’, 1888 – it was here he and Paul Gauguin lived (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Van Gogh’s mental breakdown

Arriving in Arles some ten months previously, Van Gogh suffered a complete mental breakdown on 23 December 1888.

For many years, a report in the local newspaper Le Forum Républicain was the sole proof that the drama had even taken place. Its editorial ran as follows.

“Arles – last Sunday, at half-past eleven in the evening, Vincent Vaugogh [sic] a painter, a native of Holland, turned up at the ‘House of Tolerance no. 1’ (a brothel), asked for a certain Rachel, and handed her … his ear, telling her: ‘Keep this object carefully.’ Then he disappeared.”

An eyewitness to the event seems to refute the newspaper story, however. In March 1889, the painter Paul Signac had visited the hospital in Arles and clearly recalled that Van Gogh had “cut off the lobe (and not the whole ear)”. Had the local newspaper exaggerated the nature of Van Gogh’s injury? Indeed, what had happened to the ear itself? Who was the enigmatic Rachel at the House of Tolerance no. 1 that night?

Painter Paul Gauguin, who had been sharing a house with Van Gogh, adds further confusion to the drama, with his two differing versions of the evening. In his 1903 autobiography Gauguin maintains he was threatened by Van Gogh with a cut-throat razor, yet there is no mention of this in an account to a fellow artist given four days after the drama.

Attempts by doctors to get Van Gogh to explain his actions also failed. “When I tried to get him to talk about the motive that drove him to cut off his ear, he replied that it was a purely personal matter”, wrote Dr Félix Rey in a letter to Van Gogh’s brother, Theo, on 30 December 1888.

As for what lay beneath Van Gogh’s bandage – what if the accepted history (that the artist severed his whole ear) was wrong? The two ‘Self-Portraits with Bandaged Ear’ themselves raise all sorts of questions, only some of which are easily answered. At first glance, it appears that Van Gogh mutilated his right ear – but to paint a self-portrait an artist must look into a mirror, so the image is reversed; the injury was actually inflicted on his left ear. And though the colours in the fur hat and woollen jacket Van Gogh is wearing in both portraits seems slightly different, modern technical analysis has proved that both items of clothing were originally the same colour. In the intervening years, as the canvases aged in different locations and climatic conditions, the paint colours have altered.

Van Gogh's painting ‘Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear’
Van Gogh painted ‘Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear’ (Photo by Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Another question to consider, is whether Van Gogh would be having medical treatment more than two weeks after the event if he had only cut off his lobe, as Signac had maintained? The first canvas, ‘Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe’ could only have been painted after Van Gogh had returned home on 7 January 1889.

On a background of bright – almost violent – orange and red, it shows a haggard-looking Van Gogh with sunken cheeks and bloodshot eyes, obviously still recovering from his injury. A large dressing over his injured ear is held in place by a tight bandage, giving his mouth a pinched expression. The bulkiness of the dressing – two weeks after he had self-harmed – suggests that Van Gogh had some form of infection in his ear. The bandage is wound round his head, under his jawline and across his body. Certainly, it would have been difficult, if not almost impossible, to eat, talk and sleep. Small wonder, perhaps, that Van Gogh complained in letters that he was suffering from insomnia.

The second canvas, ‘Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear’, shows Van Gogh wearing the same clothes, but this time with an easel and Japanese print clearly visible in the background. In this self-portrait the dressing is closer to the head and the artist generally looks healthier overall. The colours of the painting are calmer and brighter – blues and butter yellow – which makes the painting appear more optimistic. It may have been completed just before Van Gogh had his last dressing removed – around a week later, on 15 January.

Van Gogh's painting 'Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe'
‘Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe’ by Vincent Van Gogh (Photo by The Print Collector via Getty Images)

The inclusion of the Japanese print in this self-portrait is not merely a decorative device, but is highly significant. Van Gogh had a collection of more than 600 Japanese prints, which he had amassed in the months before moving to Arles. He was fascinated with their flat areas of colour and interesting perspectives, elements he found resolutely modern. To Van Gogh, Arles, with its sunlight, bright colours and simple lifestyle must have seemed a real-life incarnation of these prints. Soon after arriving in the southern French town he had written to Theo: “My dear brother, you know, I feel I’m in Japan.”

Van Gogh’s discovery of Japanese art changed his painting and inspired some of his greatest artworks. The inclusion of the Japanese print and the easel in ‘Self Portrait with a Bandaged Ear’ was perhaps Van Gogh’s way of conveying that he was “getting back to work” and making a recovery. But in reality the artist was still extremely unwell, writing in a letter dated 17 January 1889: “I feel weak and a little anxious and fearful.”

Gauguin and Van Gogh at home

When Gauguin moved to Arles in 1888 to lodge with Van Gogh, it seemed the ‘Studio of the South’ would become a reality – but artistic differences soon surfaced…

At the beginning of 1888, Paul Gauguin had written to Van Gogh from Pont Aven in Brittany. He was unable to work as he was suffering from dysentery, malaria and hepatitis contracted during a trip he had made to Martinique a few months previously.

Although he didn’t really know Van Gogh, he thought he might be able to put in a good word for him with his brother, Theo, an art-dealer in Paris.

On hearing of Gauguin’s troubles, Van Gogh hatched a plan. Gauguin could keep him company, he told Theo, and give the brothers a painting per month in return for board and lodging. It was a perfect arrangement enabling Vincent to fulfil his dream of creating a brotherhood of artists in Arles, a ‘Studio of the South’.

After prevaricating all summer, Paul Gauguin finally arrived in Arles on 23 October 1888. Right from the start, there were signs that all was not well. On 25 October, Gauguin wrote to Theo: “I’ve been in Arles since Tuesday morning … however, your brother is a little agitated and I hope to gradually calm him down.”

Gauguin was in a difficult position. He was not only indebted to Theo for the cost of the journey to Arles, he had also made a promise to Van Gogh. But things seemed to get better. Gauguin organised the house – he was a good cook – and its finances, creating a box for cash, tobacco, food, and ‘hygienic visits’, the latter a euphemism for visiting the nearby brothels.

However, there was much to differentiate the two men, Gauguin was worldly: married with five children, he had travelled the world as a sailor, worked on the stock exchange and was becoming recognised as an artist. Van Gogh was single, had never held a job for long, dreamt of having a wife and family and had not yet sold any of his paintings.

Their techniques were different, too. Gauguin thought long and hard about his compositions, creating 17 paintings in the nine weeks he spent in Arles, whereas Vincent painted rapidly, producing at least 34 canvases in the same period. Moreover, Gauguin had come to Arles with the belief that he would be the master. Nothing prepared him for the work Vincent had been doing in those first few months in Arles. Van Gogh had become a great painter.

As the winter took hold, the two men were confined to the Yellow House, where their evening talks inevitably turned to art. For Gauguin, this was simply lively debate, but Van Gogh couldn’t cope with anyone who disagreed with him. Thus, within weeks, Paul Gauguin found himself living in a tiny house in a rural backwater with a man who was clearly mentally ill.

By early December, Gauguin was plotting his escape, writing to Theo and friends in Paris that he couldn’t continue sharing a house with Vincent. Stuck indoors (as it had been raining for several days) Van Gogh began showing increased signs of mental disturbance. On 23 December, Gauguin packed his bags and prepared to leave…

How did Vincent van Gogh die?

With a place to live and work, Van Gogh had been very happy in Arles and had made great strides in his art. But on 23 December his whole world had been turned upside down. Although his house had been cleaned before he returned from hospital – thanks to his friend, the postman Joseph Roulin – in his letters to his brother, Theo, Van Gogh fretted about the extra expenses that the crisis was costing him; not only the hospital stay, the bandages and dressings, but also bedding and clothing that had needed to be replaced.

Van Gogh’s dream of creating a ‘Studio of the South’ in Arles was in tatters – he knew that no other artist would wish to join him – and he had also succeeded in frightening the people who lived around place Lamartine. In the wake of his breakdown, the only person Van Gogh could rely on was Roulin, but on 21 January the postman was transferred to Marseille. With his neighbours studiously avoiding him, Van Gogh’s day-to-day existence became increasingly difficult. Local children began climbing onto the window-sills of the Yellow House, peering through the windows to catch a glimpse of the ‘crazy man’, taunting him mercilessly.

Local children began climbing onto the window-sills of the Yellow House, peering through the windows to catch a glimpse of the ‘crazy man’, taunting him mercilessly

When, in early February, Van Gogh had another mental crisis, he was taken back to the hospital by the police and sequestered in a special cell. The wheels were set in motion by 30 local inhabitants, who sent a petition to the mayor requesting that he be committed to an asylum. In it they declared Van Gogh ‘is not in full possession of his mental faculties, and [is] a cause for fear to all the residents of the neighbourhood”.

In May 1889, Van Gogh left the city and voluntarily entered Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum in Saint-Rémy. Fifteen months later, aged just 37, the troubled artist shot himself and later died from his injuries.

The mystery of Van Gogh’s illness

Mental illness wasn’t well understood in the 19th century – but what do we know today?

In late 19th-century France, all forms of mental illness were grouped under the general term of ‘epilepsy’. There was little specialist study of mental illness and no cure. A patient was either placed in the overcrowded state asylum where life-expectancy was low (mostly due to tuberculosis) or if the family had the means – as was the case for Van Gogh – in a private rest home.

After a year spent in the rest home in Saint Rémy, and feeling he was making no progress, mid-May 1890 saw Van Gogh leave for Auvers-sur-Oise so that he could be nearer to his brother Theo in Paris. He lived for a further nine weeks before shooting himself in the chest. He died of his injuries two days later, on 29 July.

Van Gogh had suffered with mental illness all his life; his parents had tried to get him committed in 1870, when he was 17. Mental health problems were also present in the wider Van Gogh family as his hospital notes from Saint Rémy reveal: ‘He tells us that his mother’s sister was epileptic, and that there were several other cases in his family’.

Among Vincent’s five siblings, two died in asylums and two died by suicide. For any 19th-century family, mental illness was utterly incomprehensible and incurable. Van Gogh’s heirs and early historians preferred to highlight his artistic achievements, so it wasn’t until the 1950s that the artist’s mental illness became the subject of academic study.

Any discussion of Van Gogh’s illness is hampered by the lack of concrete facts. The only recorded symptoms were that he was seen trying to eat coal and paint, and that he suffered visual and aural hallucinations.

Many specialists have found something in his symptoms that they feel solves the puzzle of his illness, though these theories depend on who is doing the talking: a psychiatrist will make a psychiatric diagnosis; a neurologist, a neurological disorder, and so on.

Fashions in psychiatry have also played their part. In 1991, American doctor Russell R Monroe analysed 152 academic papers written about Van Gogh’s illness between 1922 and 1981. The most frequent conclusions were that Van Gogh was suffering from epilepsy (55 times), psychosis (41), schizophrenia (13), character/personality disorder (10) and bipolar disorder (9).

In 2016 – following my [Bernadette Murphy’s] discovery of a drawing by Dr Rey in the US – the Van Gogh Museum held an exhibition entitled Van Gogh: On the Verge of Insanity. For the first time experts in fields such as epilepsy, addiction, neurology and psychiatry met to examine the artist’s mental state in light of a new document that showed that Vincent had self-harmed in a spectacularly violent fashion. Yet, despite days of discussions, the panel concluded that it is impossible to tell exactly what Van Gogh suffered from. The mystery endures.

Bernadette Murphy is an author and art historian. Her most recent book, Van Gogh’s Ear: The True Story – the product of a seven-year investigation into the artist – was published in 2016 by Chatto & Windus. It later became the subject of a BBC Two documentary, presented by Jeremy Paxman and Bernadette Murphy.

Advertisement

This content first appeared in the April 2020 issue of BBC History Revealed