Why Did Van Gogh Cut Off His Ear

Why Did Van Gogh Cut Off His Ear? – The Van Gogh Ear Story

If you have ever seen one of Vincent van Gogh’s portraits with a covered ear, you might be wondering what happened to Van Gogh’s ear. Well, if you know the Van Gogh ear story, you will know that he cut it off. But, why did Van Gogh cut off his ear and which ear did Van Gogh cut off? Well, lend me your ear and I will tell you the tale of how Van Gogh lost his.



What Happened to Van Gogh’s Ear?

Vincent van Gogh’s artworks are renowned the world over for their vibrant colors and swirling patterns, yet he was not always such a well-loved and admired character. In fact, in his own time, he suffered many hardships, both personally and financially. The loss of his ear was just one in a series of events that have made his life story almost as intriguing as his artworks.

To find out what led up to this incident, let us first learn a bit about Van Gogh himself.



The Life of Vincent van Gogh

Dutch post-impressionist artist Vincent van Gogh was born in Groot-Zundert, Netherlands, on the 30th of March, 1853. Early difficulties in Van Gogh’s life included financial hardships, religious issues, and interpersonal relationships. Despite these setbacks, he persisted in his passion for painting and grew to become one of the 19th century’s most renowned painters.

Van Gogh’s art was not highly appreciated during his lifetime, despite the fact that he is now regarded as a great artist. He struggled to find buyers for his work and regularly relied on his brother Theo for financial support.

Which Ear Did Van Gogh Cut Off Self-portrait with grey felt hat (1887) by Vincent van Gogh; Vincent van Gogh, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

He also had a number of medical and mental health problems, including epilepsy, drinking, and what many think was bipolar illness. Scholars and historians disagree over Van Gogh’s mental health, although many believe that he suffered from severe depression and extreme internal conflicts throughout his life. His conversations with Theo as well as other family members demonstrate this, as he regularly expressed feelings of sadness, loneliness, and isolation.

Van Gogh continued to make art right up until his death, regardless of his hardships.



The Ear Incident

Because there were no witnesses to the actual event, the specifics surrounding the ear-cutting incident are relatively murky. Yet, considerable material has been gleaned from Van Gogh’s own letters as well as the stories of people who knew him during the time. According to a letter the artist wrote to his friend Emile Bernard, the previous evening he had a “bad quarrel” with Gauguin.

After the disagreement, Van Gogh apparently “lost his mind,” and he offered the other artist his friendship with “his full heart”. Unfortunately, Gauguin did not appear to be interested in reconciling, and the argument heated up even further.

Van Gogh returned to his residence after the dispute, where he reportedly still felt very angry and disturbed. He hacked off a part of his left earlobe with a razor blade at some time. The precise amount of tissue that he removed is debatable, with some accounts claiming that it was only the earlobe and others claiming that it was a larger section of the ear. He then bandaged his ear with a newspaper and proceeded to a local brothel, where he enquired about a lady called Rachel.

Van Gogh reportedly handed Rachel the item and stated, “Protect this object carefully”, when she arrived at the door. He then apparently exited the brothel and returned home.


Theories Around the Incident

Van Gogh and Gauguin had a turbulent relationship, and some assume that the ear-cutting episode was due to their troubled friendship. Some believe Van Gogh was inspired to take drastic steps after being rejected by a woman he was passionately interested in.

Van Gogh Ear Story Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889) by Vincent van Gogh; Vincent van Gogh, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Van Gogh was noted for using symbolism in his artwork, and some believe the ear-cutting episode was a symbolic act designed to emphasize his devotion to his craft. Van Gogh was well-known for his heavy drinking and usage of the hallucinogenic substance absinthe.

Others have speculated that the occurrence was caused by the use of alcohol or drugs.


Psychological Factors

Van Gogh is typically believed to have suffered from a variety of mental health conditions, particularly anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder. Some believe the event with his ear was the consequence of a mental episode. Van Gogh struggled with epilepsy, and some speculate that he may have chopped off his ear during a seizure.

Van Gogh was discovered almost comatose the next morning by his companion and fellow artist, Paul Signac.

He was transported to the hospital and stayed for many weeks. At this time, he is said to have experienced delusions and hallucinations. Van Gogh went on suffering from psychological disorders after leaving the hospital and ended up spending the remainder of his existence in and out of hospitals. The ear-cutting episode has become one of Van Gogh’s most well-known and disputed incidents, inspiring much discussion and debate over the years.



Historical Context

As Vincent van Gogh lived and worked in the late 1800s, mental problems were little understood, and therapies were often brutal and unsuccessful. Many individuals suffering from mental illnesses were confined in sanitariums, where they were sometimes subjected to violent and barbaric treatment. In the instance of Vincent van Gogh, he was hospitalized multiple times for mental health concerns throughout his life, notably after the ear-cutting episode.

He was subjected to a variety of procedures at the hospital, which would have potentially included the use of a straitjacket and the prescription of sedatives.

What Happened to Van Gogh's Ear Self-Portrait With Bandaged Ear and Pipe (1889) by Vincent van Gogh; Vincent van Gogh, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The stigma associated with mental illness may have inhibited Van Gogh from seeking treatment for his symptoms sooner. He may have been humiliated or ashamed about his challenges, and he may have been concerned about the potential repercussions of obtaining therapy, such as institutionalization or social exclusion. The severe and frequently futile therapies for mental illness that were available at the time may have increased Van Gogh’s symptoms and worsened his condition. For instance, the use of medications may have left him disoriented.


Now you know the story of what happened to Van Gogh’s ear, or at least, what the various possibilities are. The Van Gogh ear story is still a rather intriguing tale without any definitive answers. His ongoing mental issues raise the question if any other answers are really needed, besides that he was in a state of mind where he was likely to do irrational things such as cutting off his own ear. Luckily, he did not decide to cut out one of his eyes, and continued to make extraordinary art for years after.




Frequently Asked Questions


Why Did Van Gogh Cut Off His Ear?

There are no exact answers to that question, although we do know the circumstances leading up to the incident. We know, for instance, that he had had a very heated argument with his friend and fellow artist, Paul Gauguin. He then went home and apparently cut off his ear. There is some debate as to whether this was the only reason, though.


Which Ear Did Van Gogh Cut Off?

The Dutch artist was believed to have cut off his left ear. He then apparently took it to a brothel and asked a woman there to look after it. Some say a doctor subsequently put it in a bottle of formaldehyde, whereas others say it was just thrown away.


Cite this Article

Isabella, Meyer, “Why Did Van Gogh Cut Off His Ear? – The Van Gogh Ear Story.” Art in Context. April 24, 2023. URL: https://artincontext.org/why-did-van-gogh-cut-off-his-ear/

Meyer, I. (2023, 24 April). Why Did Van Gogh Cut Off His Ear? – The Van Gogh Ear Story. Art in Context. https://artincontext.org/why-did-van-gogh-cut-off-his-ear/

Meyer, Isabella. “Why Did Van Gogh Cut Off His Ear? – The Van Gogh Ear Story.” Art in Context, April 24, 2023. https://artincontext.org/why-did-van-gogh-cut-off-his-ear/.

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