An important precursor to the “madness” of Vincent van Gogh, and the murder of Van Gogh, was the infamous ear incident. When I conducted my investigation, I examined the ear incident as a crime scene. Who saw what? What motive was there [if it was self-inflicted or otherwise]. What happened in the aftermath? Who said what, why and how was the wound supposedly inflicted? What when was used? What weapon was likely used to sever an entire ear?
I was pleasantly surprised to find a lot of information on all these subjects, even a sketch of the actual wound. Incredibly, almost 130 years later we have Vincent’s own words to get a sense of his feelings about what happened, as well as not one but two portraits to get a more subtle sense about how he felt about it.
The incident took place just before the Christmas of 1888 during the last days when artists Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin lived together. A few days later Vincent van Gogh wrote to his former housemate – who by this time had skedaddled all the way back to Brittany, that trip paid in full by his patrol, Theo van Gogh [Vincent’s younger brother].
By January 1889 Paul Gauguin wanted his fencing equipment back. In his rush to abandon Vincent and the Yellow House in Arles, he left it behind. But in spite of what happened, he wanted it back. Understandably, Vincent wasn’t too chuffed about giving Gauguin his “weapons of war” back.
The full transcript of the letter – written on January 22nd or 23rd – can be read here.
Gauguin’s explanation of the incident was that Van Gogh did it to himself, and that he was mad, a claim he repeated shortly after Van Gogh’s death. He did not attend his friend’s funeral, but said – quite cruelly – that he wasn’t surprised by the suicide because he’d known all along Van Gogh was mad. And so the myth stuck…
And yet of the two artists, Gauguin was a fine one to talk about screw-loose behavior… This is him at the piano.
A number of expert art historians also believe Gauguin is the real culprit behind the ear-slicing incident, but Van Gogh, in typical self-deprecating fashion – and to preserve the art arrangement with his brother – took the rap for it.
I argue in my book The Murder of Vincent van Gogh that when he was shot – purposefully, with direct intent – a similar scenario played at as the one that did around the ear incident. As a result, a popular mythology has developed around the world’s most famous artist, one that is compelling but untrue, and less compelling than what actually happened.
More: Van Gogh’s Ear – The New Yorker
Art historians claim Van Gogh’s ear ‘cut off by Gauguin’ – The Guardian
Van Gogh gouged by Gauguin? I don’t believe it – The Guardian
Vincent Van Gogh and the Issue with his Ear – What Really Happened? – The Vintage News