Why did Vincent Van Gogh cut off his ear?

Why did Vincent Van Gogh cut off his ear?

Besides being an iconic and genre-defining artist, Vincent is quite famous (or rather, Infamous) for a rather absurd event in his life.

Even until now, Vincent Van Gogh is known for having cut his ear off near the end of his life.

A lot of the details of this harrowing event are muddled, with it having happened so long ago and the story of what happened being unknown.

It's hard to be a hundred percent certain about what happened. Nevertheless, we will explain the different possible reasons why Vincent cut off his ear. First, we will explore a little into who Vincent Van Gogh was.

Who is Vincent Van Gogh?

Vincent Van Gogh was a post-impressionist painter born in the 1850s. He is widely regarded to be one of the greatest Dutch painters of all time. Though it's definitely not a stretch to claim that he is indeed one of the best artists to have ever lived. 

Van Gogh was born in Zundert, a quaint town in the province of North Brabant in the Netherlands. He was the eldest of six siblings, with his father being a minister, and his mother being an artist.

It is said that she loved nature, watercolors, and artistic expression. This must-have rubbed off on her son, as his later work reflected a lot of these traits.

Van Gogh often painted and drew in his teenage years. He would also explore nature often as he wandered the countryside. He eventually became an art dealer at the age of 16.

After his death, his work was finally recognized and exploded in popularity. His works where auctioned for record-breaking sums and has left a lasting impact on modern art to this day.

Van Gogh self-portrait by Vincent Van Gogh

Van Gogh self-portrait by Vincent Van Gogh 

The Story of Vincent Van Gogh Cutting Off his Ear!

One fateful night, a rather unstable Van Gogh was arguing with his friend Paul Gaugin. Van Gogh fought with his friend Paul Gaugin, who said Van Gogh had been irritable and acting unstable for a while. 

Van Gogh had been drinking small amounts of turpentine, while also eating clumps of paint. Van Gogh was very mentally unwell and was suffering from severe depression. He was penniless and thought himself a failure. 

Paul stormed away, not wishing to continue the quarrel with his friend. As he stormed away, he heard his friend follow him. With much trepidation, he turned and was shocked to see Vincent Van Gogh standing before him with a razor.

What ensued was a truly life-changing event, as Van Gogh chased Gaugin all over the place. Still clutching the razor, In a fit of complete rage and instability, Van Gogh put the razor to his left ear and cut off a large chunk of it.

Van Gogh began to bleed profusely and did not even use any sort of anesthetic beforehand.

This was not a calculated move on Van Gogh's part. As many speculate that he had finally snapped under the crushing despair he had been experiencing for a long period of time. 

There could be many reasons why Van Gogh mutilated his ear, but perhaps the biggest reason was his madness and hallucinations. Which in itself is a very complex group of issues. 

The starry night by Vincent Van Gogh

The starry night by Vincent Van Gogh

What Happened to Van Gogh's Ear?

The details surrounding what happened to Vincent Van Gogh cut off ear is still somewhat of a mystery. The information that can be gathered may not be the most reliable accounts of what happened. People used to believe that it was just the lower parts of the ear that Van Gogh severed.

However, Van Gogh's doctor's note was found, years and years after his death. It showed the physician's written account of Van Gogh's injury.

On the face of the note was a quick sketch detailing Van Gogh's ear before and after he severed it. The sketch clearly showed that the artist had cut off around 90% of his ear, only leaving behind a tiny sliver of the upper lobe.

Among so much uncertainty and inaccurate facts surrounding Van Gogh. This was one of the only pieces of concrete evidence that elucidated a detail about this harrowing event.

After Van Gogh severed his ear, it is said that he took it to the brothel that he would often visit. This is yet another part of the story that is unclear.

A local newspaper at the time reported that Van Gogh had solicited a prostitute named "Rachel". He handed her the still dripping ear and told her to "keep this object carefully" then promptly returned home. 

However, according to Bernadette Murphy the author of Van Gogh's Ear, this was not the case and was yet another misconception surrounding the story.

According to her, Van Gogh did not give his severed ear to a woman named Ashley. Bernadette scoured many census records of Arles France, and there was no prostitute by the name of Rachel anywhere.

With further research, she discovered that Van Gogh actually left his ear with a cleaning lady named "Gaby", according to another report made at the time.

It is said that Gaby fainted on the spot. She was traumatized and did not seek Van Gogh out. Ever since it was passed to Gaby, the fate of Van Gogh's ear has been shrouded in mystery.

It's also not really known why Van Gogh gave it to a seemingly random cleaning lady. However, there are speculations that Van Gogh knew Gaby for a while, as it was believed that he was a regular in the brothel that Gaby cleaned.

She also worked at a cafe that Van Gogh liked to drink coffee as well. Perhaps they interacted in passing at both of those locations.

Cypresses by Vincent Van Gogh

Cypresses by Vincent Van Gogh

The painting dates back to June 1889, in the period immediately following his admission to the Saint Paul hospital of Saint-Rémy. 

When Did Vincent Van Gogh Cut off his Ear?

Van Gogh cut off his ear in the midst of a detrimental mental breakdown. It happened on December 23, 1988. Just a few days before Christmas.

Van Gogh's mental health had been rapidly deteriorating near the end of his life. So the act of cutting his left ear off had been a culmination of a storm brewed by his damaged psyche. He had been sipping turpentine and eating paint before the self-mutilation.

You could definitely say that this was the artist's lowest point. He could no longer hold back all the anguish he had been keeping to himself through all of the years of rejection and failed attempts to follow his dreams.

He lived in Asylum for a part of his life, but knowing the approach to mental health back then, it most likely only made his mental health even worse.

It's also likely he saw somebody (another patient perhaps) self mutilate in the mental asylum as well. Thus ingraining the thoughts of doing so into the back of his mind.

The Potato Eaters by Vincent Van Gogh

The Potato Eaters by Vincent Van Gogh

Van Gogh himself points out that the gnarled hands that are grabbing the potatoes are the same ones that, during the day, have sown and harvested them.

Did Vincent Van Gogh really cut off his ear and sent it to his girlfriend?

The short answer to this is no, for he had no girlfriend or love interest at the time. Or, maybe in Van Gogh's troubled mind, he did. There was, of course, the aforementioned Gaby, whom he gave his ear to.

Maybe he saw her as the only woman he could approach, for there is a chance that they had interacted in passing beforehand. Nevertheless, van Gogh had turned to the company of prostitutes. Most likely to fill the void that his previous failed relationships had left in its wake. 

He fell in love with a cousin of his twice, with the rest of his relationships all ending in heartbreak or never even beginning.

He has proposed to a total of three women, all of whom turned him down. One of his first rejections was when he was 19 years old, definitely a vulnerable and tender time for any man.

His view of women was also warped by his family's protestant beliefs. He would jump from seeing women as unattainable, to having a burning desire for their love and affection as well. He would often fall in love with women who were much older than he was.

Agostina Segatori Sitting in the Café du Tambourin by Vincent Van Gogh

Agostina Segatori Sitting in the Café du Tambourin by Vincent Van Gogh

Agostina Segatori was a native woman of the Marche (Italy) who made her fortune in Paris posing for Corot, Degas, and G√©r√īme and opening an appreciated cabaret "the Caf√® Le Tambourin": with her van Gogh would have a short-lived relationship.¬†

What did Van Gogh do to his ear?

As stated earlier, Van Gogh cut off his right ear during a psychotic episode. Leaving behind only a sliver of flesh from the upper lobe.

Van Gogh had been acting strangely just days prior, and he stated to have been hearing voices. He described them as unbearable.

He gave his ear to a woman named Gaby, who he may have interacted with on occasion in the past. Beyond that, not a whole lot is known about what happened to that ear once Gaby possessed it. Thankfully, Van Gogh left his other ear alone.

Did Gauguin cut off Van Gogh's ear?

No, the most widely accepted sequence of events was the one spoken about earlier. The severing of Van Gogh's ear was entirely self-inflicted. Gauguin was arguing with Van Gogh and got up to leave.

Moments later, he turned to see Van Gogh following him, brandishing a razor. Van Gogh reportedly chased Gauguin around with the razor. The deranged artist eventually broke down and cut his ear off with the razor.

However, there were conflicting reports stating that it was actually Gauguin who did this to Van Gogh. Perhaps out of self-defense, seeing as he was probably fearing for his life at the hands of the furious Van Gogh.

Regardless of what happened, Van Gogh took full responsibility for the incident, stating that he had done it to himself.

Irises by Vincent Van Gogh

Irises by Vincent Van Gogh

It is one of his first works carried out during his hospitalization at the hospital of San Paul-de-Mausole in Saint-Rémy in the year preceding his death in 1890.

Why did Van Gogh kill himself?

Vincent Van Gogh is the perfect example of the "tortured artist" or "misunderstood genius".

Throughout his entire life he had faced numerous rejections and most likely blamed himself for all the failures he faced.

Van Gogh has always been rather melancholy growing up. Exactly one year before he was born, Van Gogh's mother Cornelia birthed a stillborn baby boy, whom they named Vincent.

Grieving the loss of their child, they buried him in the backyard, with a tombstone erected over his grave. The name Vincent etched on it.

So while Vincent Van Gogh was growing up, he often saw that tombstone with his own name on it. A morbid reminder that demise was just a part of life.

There are multiple theories today that attempt to explain the reason why Van Gogh not only cut off his own ear but why he also killed himself. Some say he exhibited signs of being bipolar but was of course not diagnosed at the time.

Numerous times, over and over again he would fall in love with a woman, only for whatever feelings he may have head to end in heartbreak.

This caused him to grow cold and he withdrew into himself and became extremely solitary, shunning people as a whole.

Earlier in his life, Van Gogh had a great longing to serve humanity, so he aspired to follow in his father's footsteps and become a minister as well.

These plans fell through, as the church rejected him as they viewed his acts as martyrdom. Now penniless, he once again turned to art, as even the church had shunned him.

All of the rejection and pain of failure he had faced began to be too much for him.  Even though his artistic expression alleviated feelings of inadequacy, it did not help in the long run. He was not successful at all, having only sold one of his pieces in his entire lifetime.

The Red Vineyard by Vincent Van Gogh

The Red Vineyard by Vincent Van Gogh

Painted in Arles in November 1888.

When did Vincent Van Gogh kill himself?

Sadly, Vincent Van Gogh eventually succumbed to his poor mental health and despair. On July 27, 1890, he shot himself in the chest with a revolver. He died in his brother's arms two days later.

Van Gogh was a truly inspiring and talented artist. Artists can do now is honor his memory, and appreciate the works he had done.

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