Van Gogh had an ear

Body images - Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890): brutality of self-harm


Vincent van Gogh: Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889, oil on canvas, 60 × 49 cm: the bandage over the right ear indicates the fresh injury, van Gogh's piercing eyes stoically look into space, resigned to fate. This is how the artist portrayed himself in his studio shortly after his self-mutilation, after he had just been discharged from the hospital. © Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

The story is as macabre as it is mysterious, for van Gogh himself revealed little about the events on the night of December 23, 1888. But that much seems clear: after a heated argument with the painter Paul Gauguin, with whom he had realized his dream of an artist community for two months in Arles, the nervous and drunk Van Gogh cut off a piece of his ear with a razor. Then he ran to find Gauguin, who he believed was gone forever. He had his mutilated ear wrapped in newspaper with him to show Gauguin "what a terrible price had been paid", so the exciting biography of Naifeh / Smith. When he couldn't find Gauguin in his favorite brothel either, he handed the bloody package to a prostitute and dragged himself home. He didn't come to the hospital until the next day.

In the self-portrait, now owned by the Courtauld Gallery in London, he shows himself armed against the January cold with a bandaged right ear and a coat and fur hat. His typical long vertical brushstrokes curve only in the narrow face and the cap. To the right of him, a print by Sato Torakiyo, who adorned his studio, indicates his fascination with Japan. The blank canvas on the left may indicate that more pictures can be expected from this artist. Van Gogh painted himself around the 7th / 8th January immediately after his discharge from the hospital. He had had to fight for it, because given the brutality of his self-harm and his delusional seizures, which lasted until the end of the year, the doctors wanted to admit him to one of the insane asylums in Aix or Marseille. Brother Theo in Paris also had to be appeased: “In order to calm you down completely about my condition, I am writing you these lines”, one of his letters begins in January. He was apparently pursuing the same intention of downplaying the drama of his condition with his portrait and its second version, a permanent loan from the Niarchos shipowner family to the Kunsthaus Zürich. The recently published thesis that Gauguin cut off van Gogh's ear in an argument with his sword was declared by Van Gogh experts to be untenable. Sabine Schuchart


Permanent exhibition

The Courtauld Gallery, Room 7, Somerset House, Strand, London;

daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Naifeh S, White Smith G: “Van Gogh: His Life”, hardcover, 1,216 pages, S. Fischer 2012; 34 euros

Body images - Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890): brutality of self-harm

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