Did Van Gogh Cut Off His Own Ear?

Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889) is one of Vincent van Gogh’s most recognizable paintings The bandaged right side of his face has fascinated art historians for decades—some believe he only sliced the earlobe, while others wonder if the wound was not self­inflicted at all. (This article was first published in Who Knew?)

An Earful of Truth

Van Gogh Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear

A letter found in an American archive, and penned by Van Gogh’s doctor, Félix Rey, includes a diagram showing how the artist severed almost his entire ear, leaving a small part of the lobe intact. In 2009, a number of historians claimed that fellow painter and houseguest Paul Gauguin had sliced off Van Gogh’s earlobe in a sword fight. The injury described in Rey’s notes, however, is consistent with the theory that a razor blade was used and that it was not an accident.

Downward Spiral

It is clear from his letters that Van Gogh suffered from bouts of depression, and it is thought that he cut off his ear after a dispute with Gauguin (the two men did not reconcile) or because he was unhappy that his brother was to be married. Either way, shortly after the incident Van Gogh was committed to the hospital for a time. In the years since his posthumous rise to fame, doctors have been diagnosing him with conditions such as bipolar disorder, lead poisoning, epilepsy, and thujone poisoning caused by the large quantities of absinthe he drank.

The Not-So-Lucky Recipient

For many years it was widely believed that Van Gogh had gifted his severed ear to a sex worker named Rachel who resided in Arles, the French city that was Van Gogh’s home for the last yearof his life. But recent research has revealed that after the incident on December 23, 1888, Van Gogh made the aural offering to Gabrielle Berlatier, a young woman who worked as a maid at a brothel on Rue du Bout d’Arles. Not long before, she had been bitten by a rabid dog but survived after receiving a newly developed vaccine in Paris, where chemist Louis Pasteur had set up a special clinic to study and treat rabies. The cure was expensive, leaving her farming family in debt, which explains why she was working as a maid. She went on to marry and live to an old age, her encounter with the artist kept secret until long after her death.

Who Knew?