No one ever thought highly of Vincent van Gogh’s mental health, then or now. Not only is he well-known for his artwork but also for cutting off his ear and giving a piece to his girlfriend. While correct, the story has been greatly embellished for dramatic effect or due to widespread misunderstanding.
Van Gogh’s mental state reached its breaking point after several weeks of poor health, little sleep, emotional duress and a frenetic work pace which is why he cut off the lobe of his left ear rather than the entire ear. A more comprehensive answer would be the entire story.
It all begins when Van Gogh decides to leave Paris for Arles in the hopes that he can find solace there and get healthy again. He planned on forming a community of artists and turning it into a “studio of the south,” a place where creative ideas could be discussed and developed into a formalized educational institution.
He desperately wanted to realize this goal because he yearned for acceptance and a sense of belonging. He took his first baby step toward that goal with Paul Gauguin. In February of 1888, Vincent van Gogh moved into a house he named the “Yellow House” and began working toward his goal of turning Arles into the studio of the south.
When he finally settled into his new place, he started painting like crazy to make it feel like home. He hoped that it would serve as the ideal foundation upon which to establish the Southern art movement of his dreams.
— Vincent van Gogh (@vangoghartist) September 28, 2022
A chance encounter in Paris brought the two men together. After meeting this artist, Van Gogh had a very positive impression of him. Friendship was not as important to Gauguin as it was to Van Gogh. To hear it from others, he liked Vincent but not enough to move in with him or form a creative collective with him. His ideal cooperative would have been based in the tropics and featured himself as its leader. The confident Gauguin considered his approach to art to be the “right” one, dismissing Vincent as merely competent.
He didn’t approve of Vincent’s style of painting what he saw at the moment. By working from memory, Gauguin was able to exert more control over the outcome of his compositions and lessen their vulnerability to being influenced by the emotional intensity of the moment. The island of Martinique, where Gauguin spent his later years, would have been even more ideal for him as a location for an artistic cooperative. How then did Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh meet in Arles? Money is the solution.
Paul Gauguin had been cash-strapped for several months. He had accumulated debt and, like Vincent, was reliant on Theo van Gogh for financial support. While Theo Van Gogh did not help Gauguin out of the goodness of his heart as he did with Vincent, Gauguin did need Theo’s services as an art dealer to make a living. On occasion, Gauguin would send Theo paintings in exchange for money and Theo would send him cash.
They were both eager to visit Gauguin in the south of France. While Van Gogh repeatedly invited Gauguin to Arles, the other artist always declined. Theo leaned on Gauguin and gently persuaded him to make the trip to Arles.
Theo was a major factor in his decision to tag along with Vincent. After receiving an inheritance from their Uncle Cent, Theo intended to give it to Vincent’s southern artist cooperative. Though it was never stated directly, it was understood that each month Gauguin would receive the same monthly stipend as Vincent and that Gauguin would also send Theo paintings. On October 23, 1888, Gauguin moved to Arles.
— Pierre Bonnard (@pierre_bonnard) September 21, 2022
The beginning was fruitful. Gauguin wanted to make the best of his situation in life and move to the tropics, while Van Gogh was always eager to please. During their time together, Gauguin played the role of teacher and Van Gogh, the student. In both of these capacities, Gauguin inspired Vincent to paint more from his imagination than from life.
Vincent made an effort; at this time, he created works that relied in part on his imagination, such as Memory of the Garden at Etten and a variant of The Sower. Gauguin also took charge of the household, setting up a budget that allowed them to stretch their canvas, prepare their meals and still have money left over for trips to the local bordellos and drinks.
— Vincent van Gogh (@vangoghartist) September 28, 2022
Rapidly, the situation became direr. Van Gogh was notoriously difficult to live with due to his unpredictable temperament and his tendency to forget instances in which he behaved oddly. Months of painting at a breakneck pace culminated in heated debates with Gauguin about art and things only got worse from there.
There was a lot of worry on Van Gogh’s part that Gauguin would leave and take the Studio of the South with him. Although Gauguin made some efforts to maintain calm, he, too, was anxious due to the disparity in their personalities and artistic approaches. In letters to Theo and their mutual friend Emile Bernard, he complained that the two never saw eye to eye on anything artistic and announced his intention to leave in December before changing his mind.
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The infamous night occurred on December 23, 1888, roughly two months after Gauguin’s arrival. The bare facts are that Van Gogh and Gauguin argued, that Gauguin spent the night away from the Yellow House and that Van Gogh cut off a piece of Gauguin’s lower left ear with a razor and gave it to a prostitute he liked. When the police arrived at the Yellow House on Christmas Eve, they found Vincent severely depleted from blood loss and a significant amount of blood on his bed sheets. Indeed, these are the undisputed realities.
What’s missing is Gauguin’s take on the night, which, in general, is similar to the others, but which differs in two key respects. According to what he told Emile Bernard, who later wrote down the story, Vincent had followed him after their argument and inquired as to whether or not he was leaving. Van Gogh gave Gauguin a newspaper clipping that read, “The murderer took flight” after the artist confirmed he would be leaving Arles.
By calling Gauguin a “murderer,” Van Gogh probably meant to accuse him of destroying his ideal artist community. Fifteen years later, in his autobiography, Gauguin wrote a second account in which he claimed that Vincent had threatened him with the razor and that Gauguin had scared Vincent away. It’s safe to assume that he was trying to portray himself favorably. On that same night, another fact became known: Gauguin had taken the chance to quietly and quickly escape Arles.
What transpired between the two men that night is a mystery because Vincent van Gogh did not keep any written records of his activities. We do know that the man involved had a terrible night in which he felt compelled to cut himself. It is a mysterious evening. Nobody knows for sure how much of his ear Van Gogh cut off. Most reports specify only the earlobe, but others insist the whole ear was involved. This strange tragedy marked the beginning of Vincent’s long and ultimately futile battle with his mental health.
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