New Ear Theory for Van Gogh

One of the most famous stories surrounding Van Gogh is that the artist cut off his own ear in December of 1888, shortly after a violent argument with his friend and fellow artist Paul Gauguin. Reportedly, Van Gogh then gave the ear to a local prostitute, a woman named Rachel. Due to the popularity of this story, I think that Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear (c. 1889, shown left) is one of the painter’s best-known self portraits.

An interesting (and rather incredulous, in my opinion) theory came out earlier this year about Van Gogh’s ear cutting. You may have caught wind of this new theory – in May it was picked up by all different newspapers and sites. Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans’ new book, In Van Gogh’s Ear: Paul Gauguin and the Pact of Silence argues that Van Gogh did not cut off his own ear, but rather Gauguin was the culprit. Kaufmann and Wildegans believe that Van Gogh and Gauguin were fighting about Rachel (the prostitute). According to this theory, the men agreed to invent the story of self-mutilation so that Gauguin would not get in trouble with the authorities. Gauguin eventually moved to Tahiti and Van Gogh committed suicide in 1890. You can read more about this new theory in these articles by the Daily Mail and BBC News.

Personally, I have a hard time accepting everything put forth by Kauffman and Wildegans. I kind of like the idea that Rachel was the source of the argument, especially since we know that Van Gogh gave Rachel the infamous ear afterwards. However, I’m not sure that Gauguin would have been the one to slice Van Gogh. I agree with what Jonathan Jones wrote to attack this theory. After Gauguin left, he wrote Van Gogh and asked for the Sunflowers painting a parting memorial gift. I don’t think Gauguin would have had the gall to ask for a momento if he had recently cut off his friend’s ear. That doesn’t make sense to me.

What do you think about this theory?

  • Ashley says:

    I've never heard of this new theory! That's really interesting. I guess there will never be a way to know for sure, will there?

  • Blake Creative says:

    I heard about this when the book came out. My students were all over me asking me about it. I ended up doing research–I believe the authors evidence is circumstantial, but whatever sells a book right?

  • e says:

    Hmmm … well, I think new theories are kind of exciting … that is, for the person WRITING them. However, I do appreciate that anyone would want to question van Gogh's ear incident. I'm with you on the love triangle business with the prostitute — that's kind of interesting, but from the links you provided and your opinion, I think Van Gogh was his own culprit.

  • M says:

    Blake Creative, thanks for your comment (and welcome to my blog, I don't think that you have commented before)! Yeah, it seems to me like the authors' evidence is rather circumstantial too. I'm not surprised that your students were interested in talking about the book. It seems like students latch onto controversial/unusual/revisionist arguments like this one. I think it's great though, because it allows for classroom discussion and gets students interested in the discipline.

    e, I also appreciate that someone would want to question Van Gogh's ear incident (even if I don't agree with the resulting argument). I'm glad you brought up that point. Art history always needs questioning minds so that new ideas can be generated (and historical proof can be determined).

  • M says:

    Ashley – I think you are right. At this point, there isn't enough extant evidence to concretely prove what happened. But who knows what other evidence may surface in the future? 🙂

  • DeNae says:

    I'm new to the dialogue, but have you already exhausted the possibility that he was schizophrenic and suffering from auditory hallucinations?

    I totally learned that on Law and Order: CI. So clearly I've done extensive research on the subject.


  • M says:

    Thanks for your comment DeNae (and welcome to the blog, too!. I love that the topic of Van Gogh's ear was on Law and Order: CI. Awesome.

    I actually wasn't aware of the auditory hallucinations theory until you brought it up. That's interesting. There's a couple of places online that discuss that theory. If anyone is interested, you can read a bit more about this theory (as well as a couple of other ones) in a Google Books preview of the Handbook of Psychobiography by William Todd Schultz.

  • heidenkind says:

    Meh, doubtful. Not that I don't think Gauguin is capable of cutting off people's ears (~_^), but Van Gogh had a long history of self-mutilation starting with his first romantic debacle when he was in his early twenties. It was like the only way he could express all the feelings inside himself was to burn or cut himself. So I don't think this theory really holds up to scrutiny.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.