Did Gauguin Cut Off Van Gogh’s Ear?

Curi­ous piece in the Tele­graph. It starts:

He is known as the tor­tured genius who cut off his own ear as he strug­gled with men­tal ill­ness after the break­down of his friend­ship with a fel­low artist. But a new study claims Vin­cent Van Gogh may have made up the sto­ry to pro­tect painter Paul Gau­guin who actu­al­ly lopped it off with a sword dur­ing an argu­ment…

Ge the full sto­ry here.

by | Permalink | Comments (4) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (4)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Frederic says:

    What a lame sto­ry! No wit­ness­es, no proofs, this is pret­ty much spec­u­la­tions.
    The only valid writ­ings about Vin­cent Van Gogh are by Vin­cent him­self in his let­ters to his broth­er Theo.
    First: Why Vin­cent or Theo nev­er talked, com­plained or com­ment­ed about such a sto­ry?
    Sec­ond: Van Gogh’s ear was not cut off but only his ear­lobe.
    Third: In a let­ter dat­ed Decem­ber 23rd 1888 Gau­guin wrote that Van Gogh attacked him « a razor in his hand». and he added: «My stare at him was prob­a­bly pow­er­ful because he stopped and went on his way home”
    Fourth: Paul Gau­g­in took only cou­ple of fenc­ing lessons when he was young, for him to cut off Vin­cen­t’s ear­lob with a sword with­out cut­ting part of Vin­cen­t’s neck or head would have required a total mas­tery of the sword and a very sharp blade.
    Fifh: In Feb­ru­ary 1888, Van Gogh moved to Arles and became faci­nat­ed with Japan­ese cul­ture. Vin­cent was aware of the Geishas rit­u­al which con­sist of offer­ing hair, nails and even fin­gers to their lovers. By offer­ing a piece of his ear to a pros­ti­tute and lover named Rachel, Van Gogh and his mad­ness repeat­ed that rit­u­al.
    So, Did Gau­g­in cut off Van Gogh’s ear? No…

  • Art his­to­ri­ans claim Van Gogh’s ear ‘cut off by Gau­guin’

    As one who has also spent many years research­ing the life of Vin­cent van Gogh, first as the author and direc­tor of the play Stranger on the Earth and lat­er as the writer and direc­tor of the film The Eyes of Van Gogh, I empathize with the effort spent in pro­duc­ing the book, Van Gogh’s Ear: Paul Gau­guin and the Pact of Silence, by Hans Kauf­mann and Rita Wilde­gans.

    I under­stand and appre­ci­ate their fas­ci­na­tion with this extra­or­di­nary indi­vid­ual.

    Nonethe­less, it must be said that the entire basis of their book rests on a regret­table but enor­mous mis­un­der­stand­ing of what it was van Gogh wrote to his broth­er Theo and to Paul Gau­guin. That, plus a very selec­tive edit­ing of the same let­ters and an appar­ent lack of aware­ness of cer­tain key facts about Gau­guin, led them to a very flawed premise. They then pro­ceed­ed to shore up their the­sis with asser­tions eas­i­ly rebutted and with one ludi­crous and fab­ri­cat­ed inci­dent.

    Frankly, I am aston­ished and appalled by the unthink­ing recep­tion and atten­tion this book has received from the press.

    The authors have con­clud­ed that Gau­guin, not Vin­cent him­self, is respon­si­ble for the muti­la­tion of van Gogh’s ear. They state “We care­ful­ly re-exam­ined wit­ness accounts and let­ters writ­ten by both artists and we came to the con­clu­sion that van Gogh was ter­ri­bly upset over Gauguin’s plan to go back to Paris.” This in itself is no rev­e­la­tion. Any­one who has stud­ied the let­ters van Gogh wrote to his broth­er Theo after he muti­lat­ed him­self, as well as the ref­er­ences to the inci­dent in Gauguin’s mem­oirs, would know this.

    Again quot­ing the authors: “In the first let­ter that Vin­cent van Gogh wrote after the inci­dent, he told Gau­guin, ‘I will keep qui­et about this and so will you.’ That appar­ent­ly was the begin­ning of the ‘pact of silence.’”

    The first let­ter that Vin­cent wrote after the maim­ing was to Theo on Jan­u­ary 1, 1889, eight days after the event. On the lack of the let­ter he wrote a note to Gau­guin ques­tioned the neces­si­ty of hav­ing Theo come to Arles. “Look here – was my broth­er Theo’s jour­ney real­ly nec­es­sary, old man?” It pained Vin­cent ter­ri­bly to live off of Theo; the last thing he want­ed was to bur­den him with this.

    Vin­cent nev­er wrote “I will keep silent about this and so will you.” There is absolute­ly no ref­er­ence to this so called “pact of silent” any­where in the let­ter. The only ref­er­ence to silence, per se, is in a let­ter to Theo writ­ten Jan­u­ary 17, 1889 where he men­tions that after the inci­dent he had con­tin­u­al­ly asked for Gau­guin but he refused to come. He wrote, “How can Gau­guin pre­tend that he was afraid of upset­ting me by his present, when he can hard­ly deny that he knew I kept ask­ing for him con­tin­u­al­ly, and that he was told over and over again that I insist­ed on see­ing him at once. Just to tell him that we should keep it between him and me, with­out upset­ting you. He would not lis­ten.” Mean­ing that Gau­guin did tell Theo what had hap­pened. There was no cov­er-up. No pact of silence. How could there have been since Vin­cent makes it clear in this let­ter that Gau­guin refused to see him after the muti­la­tion. Any silence Vin­cent want­ed was in regard to Theo’s learn­ing what he had done to him­self – com­plete­ly in keep­ing with his char­ac­ter, actions and state­ments through­out his life, up to and includ­ing his sui­cide, when he plead­ed with Dr. Gachet not to let Theo know he shot him­self.

    Anoth­er point: The telegram Gau­guin sent to Theo telling him what hap­pened was sent the fol­low­ing morn­ing – after the injury – when Gau­guin, see­ing a crowd at the Yel­low House, dis­cov­ered what Vin­cent had done. Obvi­ous­ly, if he had injured Vin­cent, he wouldn’t have retired to a hotel and let his friend bleed to death, but would have noti­fied Theo imme­di­ate­ly.

    Kauf­mann also cites cor­re­spon­dence between van Gogh and his broth­er in which the painter hints at what hap­pened that night with­out direct­ly break­ing the “pact of silence’ writ­ing that, “…it is lucky that Gau­guin does not have a machine gun or oth­er firearms.” This is very selec­tive edit­ing. What Vin­cent actu­al­ly wrote in that let­ter of Jan­u­ary 17, 1889 is, “For­tu­nate­ly, Gau­guin and I and oth­er painters are not yet armed with machine guns and oth­er very destruc­tive ele­ments of war.” He was express­ing his dis­dain for vio­lence dis­guised as sport.

    Final­ly, again quot­ing the authors: ‘On the evening of Decem­ber 23, 1888 van Gogh, seized by an attack of a meta­bol­ic dis­ease, became very aggres­sive when Gau­guin said he was leav­ing him for good. The men had a heat­ed argu­ment near the broth­el and Vin­cent might have attacked his friend. Gau­guin, want­i­ng to defend him­self and want­i­ng to get rid of ‘the mad­man’ drew his weapon and made a move towards van Gogh and by that he cut off his left ear.”

    Sev­er­al points: 1. It was not Vincent’s entire ear that was cut off, but rather the low­er third of the ear. 2. If in the course of a heat­ed argu­ment Vin­cent attacked him, Gau­guin would have had no need for a sword since he was an expert box­er and would have made short work of a total­ly inept fight­er like Vin­cent. (While in Brit­tany in 1893, Gau­guin was attacked by a large group of sailors. He more than held his own until he tripped and severe­ly injured his leg.) 3. Gau­guin was also an expert swords­man. The swords he fenced with were, of course, foils. For those who don’t know, a foil is a thrust­ing, not a cut­ting, weapon and does not have a cut­ting edge. The idea of Gau­guin strik­ing down­ward with a foil and cut­ting off a third of Vincent’s low­er ear is ludi­crous; in fact, damn near impos­si­ble. If Gau­guin did have a cut­ting sword (which, of course, he didn’t) and was able to cut of Vincent’s low­er ear, rest assured he would have cut off part of his face and shoul­der with it.

    How sad this whole thing is. As I have writ­ten before, there are more myths and mis­in­for­ma­tion about Vin­cent van Gogh than any artist who ever lived. What should cap­ture the atten­tion of the world are the facts: The most sig­nif­i­cant and rev­e­la­to­ry things about van Gogh are not that he cut off his ear­lobe or that he suf­fered attacks of mad­ness or that he com­mit­ted sui­cide, but rather that he lived life to the fullest, real­ized his artis­tic poten­tial as much as human­ly pos­si­ble, fought mag­nif­i­cent­ly against the attacks and all forms of adver­si­ty — nev­er will­ing­ly giv­ing in to them. Most impor­tant, he cre­at­ed a superb body of work that will live as long as the human race sur­vives. The theme of his life is his quest to achieve immor­tal­i­ty through his work.

  • Joshie hacka says:

    thats a lot of writ­ing you got there

  • vanrijngo says:

    I’m afraid that the new study claims of Gau­guin whack­ing it off with his sword is false. There was noth­ing about Gau­guin’s body that would replace Vin­cen­t’s own ten­den­cies, his thoughts and desires of a wom­an’s body. Now if peo­ple would just ana­lyze & real­ize what had real­ly hap­pen and lis­ten to what was said back then at the time. Art peo­ple and read­ers would know that this claim real­ly sucks,… just like the exper­tise say­ing these things.

    What a bunch of malarkey, for Gau­guin real­ly new how lucky he real­ly was to hear Vin­cent sneak­ing up behind him. When see­ing his shav­ing razor in hand and to see him in the light­ing of the gas street light sneak­ing up behind him was fright­en­ing. If it did­n’t hap­pen the exact way Gau­guin first explained it to the police, he might have had a big ass prob­lem him­self, if not being killed in the process. It was a vio­lent argu­ment they had before Gau­guin leav­ing the yel­low house and say­ing he was leav­ing the town of Arles the first thing in the morn­ing for good. This was just before he head­ed for the broth­el.

    Trust me,

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.