Why Van Gogh's Infamous Ear Story Isn't As Interesting As You Think

Artist Vincent Van Gogh is famous for his post-Impressionist paintings that are among the most influential works of art in history. Nearly as well known is the legendary story of how he cut off his own ear after a fight with fellow painter Paul Gauguin, and then presented the ear to a sex worker as a token of his affection. That event was immortalized by Van Gogh himself in the 1889 painting "Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe" (pictured above). Like most legends, there are various theories and explanations regarding the truth of shocking story. 

As reported by ABC News, German historians Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans investigated the incident. Their theory is that the ear slicing was actually done by Gauguin during the argument, and the two agreed to keep a "pact of silence" about the truth: Gauguin, to avoid prosecution for the crime of cutting off another man's ear, and Van Gogh, because he was desperate to keep his very stormy relationship with Gauguin intact.

Kaufmann noted that the popular, widely accepted version of the story comes from Gauguin's account of the situation. Kaufman and Wildegans did some primary research, using witness accounts and letters written by both Van Gogh and Gauguin, and concluded that the two were fighting because Van Gogh was upset that Gauguin was planning on leaving the studio they'd been renting in Arles, France to return to Paris. Kaufmann and Wildegans went on to blame Van Gogh's "metabolic disease" for his violent outburst.

Who really cut off Van Gogh's ear?

Van Gogh and Gauguin proceeded to fight physically, outside of their studio and near a brothel. Gauguin (pictured above), known for his fencing prowess, defended himself with a sword, and while they don't know if the cutting of Van Gogh's ear was intentional or accidental, Kaufman told ABC News, "it was dark and we suspect that Gauguin did not intend to hit his friend." Gauguin left Arles almost immediately, and the two never saw each other again. In his first letter to Gauguin after the incident, Van Gogh wrote, "I will keep quiet about this and so will you," which Kaufmann and Wildegans used as evidence in support of their theory. 

The Van Gogh Museum of Amsterdam doesn't mention the "Gauguin did it" theory on their web page about Van Gogh's ear. In a video, museum researcher Bregje Gerritse's explanation hews closely to the standard account, noting that Van Gogh did in fact present his entirely severed ear to a woman at the brothel. He was in the hospital for a week after the incident, at which point he regained consciousness and "remembered little of what had happened and more than anything, just wanted to forget about his illness." This might explain the "I will keep quiet and so will you" line in his letter to Gauguin. Within a month, it was clear that Van Gogh was mentally ill. Gerritse notes that an "all-embracing diagnosis" for Van Gogh has never been found.