One of the most infamous incidents in art history occurred 125 years ago on December 23, 1888, when the troubled Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh reportedly severed his left earlobe in a fit of lunacy. Not all art historians, however, believe the wound was self-inflicted.
On October 23, 1888, Paul Gauguin knocked on the door of a small yellow home in the southern French city of Arles. The door creaked open, and Vincent Van Gogh welcomed his new houseguest inside 2 Place Lamartine. Van Gogh, who suffered from bouts of depression and fits of dementia, had rented the “Yellow House” earlier in the year. There, the Dutch painter fluctuated between periods of madness and creativity while painting scenes of the French countryside and his famed sunflower series. Plagued by despair and loneliness, Van Gogh hoped his new home and studio would house an artists’ colony that would provide him with companionship and lessen his financial dependence on his younger brother Theo, an art dealer who supported the struggling painter.
Gauguin had finally accepted Van Gogh’s repeated pleas to join him in Provence. The pair painted numerous canvases and together explored the region’s art galleries and brothels, but from the very beginning the two artists had a tempestuous relationship. The two Post-Impressionist masters bickered like college roommates over everything from chores and household expenses to the virtues of Delacroix and Rembrandt. Gauguin groused about Van Gogh’s messy studio and threw out his host’s bedding and sent for his own linen to be delivered from Paris.
The Yellow House quickly grew into a hothouse of tension instead of the artistic utopia of Van Gogh’s dreams. “The time to me seemed a century,” wrote Gauguin, who became increasingly concerned about Van Gogh’s brooding silences and erratic outbursts. “Vincent has been turning very strange,” he confided to a friend. “I have been living with my nerves on edge,” he wrote to another. In mid-December, Gauguin expressed his exasperation with his host’s increasingly bizarre behavior in a letter to Theo Van Gogh. “Vincent and I absolutely cannot live side-by-side any longer without friction,” he wrote, “because of the incompatibility of our temperaments and because he and I both need tranquility for our work.”
Finally, two days before Christmas, never a happy time for Van Gogh, Gauguin told his host that he planned to return to Paris. According to Gauguin, he left the house after supper that night for a walk when Van Gogh suddenly appeared behind him in a nearby park and threatened him with a razor. Gauguin calmed Van Gogh down but decided for safety’s sake to spend the night at a nearby hotel.
Nine weeks after Gauguin knocked on the front door of his Yellow House, the Dutch master returned to his now empty home, alone once again. Van Gogh had hoped Gauguin’s stay would be eternal, but now his dreams of an artists’ colony were dashed. In a fit of madness, the despondent painter picked up his straight razor, pulled on his left earlobe and cut it off. The slashing severed Van Gogh’s auricular artery, and he bled heavily. The artist finally staunched the bleeding with wet towels and dressed his wound. He carefully wrapped the ear fragment in a newspaper, donned a beret to cover the injury and walked to a nearby brothel where he asked to see Gauguin’s favorite prostitute. According to one newspaper account, he presented the woman named Rachel with his ear and said, “Guard this object very carefully.” Rachel fainted after unwrapping the newspaper, and Van Gogh staggered home.
Alerted by the brothel, the police the following morning discovered Van Gogh in bed unconscious, wrapped in his blood-drenched sheets. He was admitted to a local hospital, where he repeatedly asked to see Gauguin. His friend never came.
Van Gogh remained hospitalized in Arles for two weeks before returning to the Yellow House. The wound healed, and the Dutchman continued to paint, even documenting the aftermath of the violent episode in self-portraits depicting himself smoking a pipe with bandages wrapped around his head. The manic waves continued, however, and Van Gogh spent most of the next year in a mental institution in Saint-Remy before shooting himself on July 27, 1890. He died two days later at the age of 37.
The night of December 23, 1888, remains the most notorious moment of Van Gogh’s life, and much of the narrative of the events is based on the accounts of Gauguin, who was an initial suspect when police discovered the bloody seen at the Yellow House. A 2009 book by German art historians Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans, however, theorized that the traditional account was actually a cover-up devised by the two artists to protect Gauguin, who had lopped off Van Gogh’s ear with his fencing sword after a particularly heated argument. According to Kaufmann and Wildegans, since Van Gogh desperately wanted to maintain his friendship with Gauguin, he protected him from prosecution.
While the true story of what happened on December 23, 1888, might be subject to debate, this much is certain. After that night, Van Gogh and Gauguin never saw each other again.