No One’s Really Sure What Happened To Van Gogh’s Ear

“The more I think it over, the more I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.” —Vincent van Gogh

In A Nutshell

Everyone knows that van Gogh once took a straight razor to his own ear and lopped off a good part of it. That’s the story that’s been as much a part of pop culture as it has been art history, but a review of contemporary documents suggests that it didn’t happen that way at all. Another theory is that his ear was cut off by his longtime friend and roommate, the French artist Paul Gauguin, whom he was involved in an argument with. Because the two witnesses to the actual event aren’t talking—and never did—we’re left with some pretty interesting speculation.

The Whole Bushel

While art historians and history buffs might go on and on over the paintings and prolific works of Vincent van Gogh, the rest of us know him as the crazy painter that cut off his ear. It’s one of those stories that people are just familiar with, even those who have never set foot in an art gallery and have no interest in doing so.

According to the popular story, van Gogh (who was known as being rather mentally imbalanced) had a massive, massive argument with a friend, the French artist Paul Gauguin. It was a night in 1888, just before Christmas, it’s said, when the two friends began to argue. Van Gogh, presumably to prove a point of some sort, took a razor blade and lopped off part of his ear. (Just how much he actually cut off is another point that’s always been up for debate.)

Van Gogh then wandered outside and down the street, heading to a nearby brothel. He handed one of ladies his ear, wrapped in a cloth, and asked her to keep it safe. She fainted, and he went home to sleep. Police came, summoned by the women at the bordello, and managed to keep the painter from bleeding to death in his bed.

Only, that might not be quite the truth. As it’s said, the truth is often stranger than fiction.

Van Gogh and Gauguin were good friends—very good friends. They lived together in the south of France, in a town that became known as something of an artists’ commune as their lifestyle leaked out into the community. New theories suggest that life in the home of van Gogh and Gauguin was less than perfect and when Gauguin, sick and tired of van Gogh’s unpredictable mood swings, declared he was leaving, things got pretty heated.

Comparing letters, journals, diaries, and eyewitness accounts suggest that the argument turned physical when van Gogh threw a wineglass at his friend, who responded with a slice from his nearby rapier because, well, it was France. Gauguin was well-known as an accomplished swordsman, and it’s thought that the blow was something of a regrettable accident.

Van Gogh, who truly did care for his fellow painter and by no means wanted to see him get arrested, told the story of how he had done it to himself.

There has never been anything found that suggests which part of the story is true. There were only two witnesses, and neither of them ever said a word outside of the publicly told story.

Van Gogh’s ear has taken on something of a life of its own. Today, that life is quite literal. The Karlsruhe Museum in Germany took 3-D printing to a new level when they teamed up with an artist who works partially in biological media to use material infused with the DNA (from van Gogh’s brother’s great-great-grandson, the painter’s closest living relative) to print van Gogh’s ear.

The size and shape of the ear is based on a computer model of van Gogh’s ear and is designed to get people thinking about a pretty intriguing question: If an artificially created body part contains our DNA, is it really a part of us?

Show Me The Proof

NPR: Who Really Cut Off Van Gogh’s Ear?
ABC News: The Real Story Behind van Gogh’s Severed Ear
LiveScience: Artist Creates Living Replica of Van Gogh’s Ear