New evidence changes the story of why Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear

The most famous ear in history.
The most famous ear in history.
Image: Vincent van Gogh
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Vincent van Gogh’s ear has been an object of fascination for years, leading historians to come up with all sorts of different theories about why exactly the 19th century Dutch artist cut off a piece of his own auditory organ.

The most widely accepted account is that van Gogh cut off his ear lobe in a fit of mania after getting in a fight with fellow artist Paul Gauguin, and then gave it to a prostitute named Rachel as a token of affection.

The latest evidence, though, suggests that nearly every element of that story is inaccurate.

Martin Bailey, a British van Gogh specialist, argues in a new book—Studio of the South:Van Gogh in Provence, to be published on Nov. 3that van Gogh sliced off his entire ear with a razor blade after learning the news that his brother Theo was engaged.

In the book, Bailey points to correspondences between family members from the Van Gogh Museum Archive that show Theo asking his mother for permission to marry Jo Bonger on Dec. 21, 1888 (which he received);  by Dec. 23, the happy couple received congratulations from Bonger’s siblings. From a letter dated January the next year, Vincent mentioned that he had received his regular financial allowance of 100 France from Theo on Dec. 23. Considering the close relationship between the brothers, Bailey believes the money would have been sent with a letter containing news of the marriage—an unwelcome surprise.

Historians presume Vincent would have been distressed by the engagement, because from his perspective, it threatened the brothers’ relationship—and, as Theo would have to take on family responsibilities, the artist’s only source of financial support.

However, historians previously believed that van Gogh only learned about the marriage after he mutilated his ear, since the first record of the artist mentioning the union is a letter dated Jan. 19, a month after the incident. That’s why the row with Gauguin was generally considered the trigger: the French artist threatened to leave his artistic collaborator and flatmate for good, and on the same day, van Gogh cut off his ear.

The new evidence suggests that van Gogh learned about the news of his brother’s marriage on the same day as the ear mutilation and the fight with Gauguin, and therefore makes for a more probable emotional trigger. “It was fear that pulled the trigger and led to the breakdown,” Bailey told CNN. “Fear of being abandoned in both an emotional and financial way.”

After the incident, van Gogh walked into his favorite brothel in Arles to give his ear to an 18-year old girl named Gabrielle Berlatier, who was not a prostitute, but a maid at the facility, according to another recent book Van Gogh’s Ear: The True Story, by Bernadette Murphy. Murphy also included a drawing by the doctor who treated the wound, showing that instead of cutting off just the ear lobe—as earlier versions of the story had it—van Gogh had removed almost the entire appendage.