Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Mystery of van Gogh's Ear

Van Gogh-Self-Portrait with Pipe

On this day December 23, 1888 Vincent van Gogh mutilated his ear. This event occurred after an argument he had with his friend and fellow painter Paul Gauguin. Van Gogh came to settle in Arles in the south of France earlier in the year; there he spent time painting feverishly the landscape and colors of Provence. His dream  was to establish an artist colony and he invited his friend Gauguin who came from Pont Aven, Brittany, another artist colony.

Van Gogh-Yellow House, Arles
They lived together in a little yellow house that van Gogh rented in Arles and spent times working and producing canvases such  a series on the Alycamps, the Roman necropolis. At first all was well, then the artists started to argue about artistic conceptions.  Two nights  before Christmas, the two men quarreled rather violently and Gauguin moved out to the nearby hotel.   Van Gogh upset about his friend leaving, took a razor and mutilated his left ear lobe. Even more bizarrely he wrapped up his bloody ear lobe and gave it to a local prostitute named Rachel (apparently the two men patronized her). This is according to the official version based on memoirs reported by Gauguin and van Gogh's letters to his brother Theo.

However, a recent version by two German art historians, Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans, dispute this traditional version. They believe while quarreling, Gaughin might have brandished a sword  to scare off the demented Van Gogh who had thrown a glass of wine to his face and while defending himself he sliced off Van Gogh's ear. In order to protect his friend from police investigation and perhaps in the hope that he will remain in Arles at the artist colony, Van Gogh  pretended he did his own mutilation. This version is disputed by experts from the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam.

 After this incident, Van Gogh was sent to  St. Remy de Provence 's asylum of Saint Paul de Mausole where he spent time recuperating and where he painted many of his masterpieces while Gauguin left for for Paris and subsequently settled in Tahiti. 

Paul Gauguin-Alyscamps

van Gogh- Allee des Alyscamps

Recommended reading: Adam Gopnik's article in the New Yorker- (January 4, 2010).

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