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Van Gogh was Mad, and Proof of this is He Cut Off His Own Ear, Right? Wrong on Both Counts

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.

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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.

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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


  1. CBH

    It makes sense that Gauguin cut it off, as he was obviously into fencing and the two fought. Probably an accident.

  2. SRC

    This book has been one of the most fascinating, compelling, and in-depth reads I have enjoyed for awhile. As I explore each link of your research, not only am I thankful for your generosity in sharing such an abundance of resources, I’m consumed with curiosity and continue to follow the trails of information. Vincent van Gogh is a thoroughly captivating person. Gauguin not so much…

  3. Sylvester

    Exactly one year later for this entry on this particular page and today I hope to sign up for Patreon – after work, and I do mean to go out and work. When Van Gogh says he is in no position to lift a finger at the moment to return Gauguin’s things, if I were to analyze Van Gogh in that moment I think he suffers from depression. We didn’t know much about depression then, and with depression often comes physical symptoms. Having Gauguin leave Van Gogh after the promise and excitement of what was to be a collaboration of artists, two against the world rather than one, and a friendship, it’s very likely Van Gogh was suffering and could barely get out of bed, to paint, much less return Gauguin’s items to him. No matter how many times he relapsed, I think he always came back, by doing what he liked to do most – paint. And the fact that he checked himself in to a hospital isn’t so far off the mark of what a sane person might need to do with confusing thoughts and physical accompaniment , in order to restore some semblance of calm to themselves.

    For example Japanese contemporary artist living today, Yayoi Kusama has lived in the Selwa Mental hospital since 1977. She began having intense visions and hallucinations of stairs crumbling under her feet, and the world consuming her of her colorful patterns of making circles, spots, dots, etc. She thought she’d be better off working out of a mental hospital (a controlled environment) and that’s exactly what she’s done and continues to do. And she still makes dots, rooms and trees full of dots, and exhibits worldwide. I love her art, it’s been an inspiration to my own. She saw the hospital as a sanctuary and a place she could get a grip on her thoughts, and possibly Van Gogh did too. A restful respite. However reading above it does seem as thought they may have been arguing about some “canvas in question.” And if Gauguin rushed away without his fencing materials and whatever canvas they may have been arguing about, why the hasty retreat?

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