May 5, 2009


This news item has been cropping up in (sever)al sources today. It’s the kind of story I just love. I’ll try to paraphrase it.

German art historians Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans claim in their new book Van Gogh's Ear: Paul Gauguin and the Pact of Silence that Vincent Van Gogh might not have sliced off his own ear after all but made up the story to protect painter Paul Gauguin who actually lopped it off with a sword during an argument.

Despite Van Gogh almost bleeding to death the two men kept a "pact of silence" in order for Gauguin to avoid prosecution and for Van Gogh to placate his volatile friend.

On December 23, 1888 Vincent supposedly lopped off his own ear and handed it to a neighbourhood prostitute. The art historians from Hamburg tell another tale.

Unhappy Gauguin was apparently an excellent fencer. He was planning to leave the "Yellow House" that he and Vincent had been renting together. With his baggage and sword he was out the door, but was followed by the troubled Van Gogh, who had earlier pitched a glass at him.

Their quarrel intensified, and, as they approached the brothel, Gauguin cut off Van Gogh's left earlobe with his sword either in a fit of anger or in self-defence. According to Kaufmann and Wildegans, Gauguin then threw the weapon in the Rhône and Van Gogh delivered the ear to the prostitute and staggered home, where police discovered him, bloodied, the following day.

The fact that Gauguin had been staying with Van Gogh at the Yellow House is not disputed but most experts think he had disappeared before the ear incident.

The historians provide no “smoking gun” to refute their claims but they use letters and diaries to backup their interpretation of events.

Van Gogh was a copious letter writer and a diarist. Van Gogh’s final recorded words to Gauguin were "You are quiet, I will be, too".

In correspondence between Vincent and his brother Theo, he hints at what happened without directly breaking the "pact of silence" made with his estranged friend. As we have the complete letters between Vincent and Theo, I’ll have to look up this time period.

He mentions Gauguin's request to recover his fencing mask and gloves from Arles, but not the epée. Vincent also writes, according to Kaufmann, “that it's lucky Gauguin doesn't have a machine gun or other firearms, that he's stronger than him and that his 'passions' are stronger."

Kaufmann points to one of Van Gogh's sketches of an ear, with the word "ictus" the Latin term used in fencing to mean a hit. The authors believe that zigzags Van Gogh drew above the ear represent Gauguin's Zorro-like sword-stroke.

The historians also contend that Van Gogh had not yet gone mad at this stage. Kaufmann states "That was propaganda and all part of Gauguin's self-defense strategy"

Dah, dah, dahhh!!!


Brian Miller said...

intriguing bit of history. all a big cover up...sounds like the government. lol.

Solid Frog said...

Interesting story!

Poetikat said...

Oh, those wacky artists! Such choleric temperaments, the lot of them. I've always found that whole ear story so Biblical.
Have you ever seen the film, "Vincent and Theo"?


The Clever Pup said...

Kat, with Tim Roth?
No I haven't.
G-pup, who has put a moratorium on having his likeness represented in my blog, is a big VVG fan.

Poetikat said...

Yes, I noticed the portrait in your dining room.
Tim Roth and Paul Rhys. It was actually directed by Robert Altman (of all people).
Johanna ter Steege, the actress who played in it was in one of our favourite foreign films - "Spoorloos" (the original "The Vanishing"). Have you seen IT? Absolute riveting!


Marie Reed said...

This is awesome! You are such a clever pup! woof!

The Clever Pup said...

Kat, hey yeah, we saw the Vanishing when TVO had Cinema International. It really stayed with us. It's chilling. We get that kind of shiver up the back of the neck sometimes at gas stations.

I don't think we could bring ourselves to watch it a third time.

Of course, Hollywood made it with a happy ending and I thing Kiefer Sutherland and Jeff Bridges.

Poetikat said...

Yeah. That remake didn't even come close!
Have you seen "With a Friend Like Harry"?


delianeal said...

I think that anytime you get into a drunken argument with your friend, you should probably have someone else hang on to your swords. But that's just me.

GREAT post - can we call in the French Surrealist Movement CSI to work this case up? I would be disappointed if they didn't assign it to CSI analyst Clouseau. uhh, sorry, wrong genre, and I probably spelled it wrong.

K. said...


Mervat said...

You know, I absolutely loved this story. If it is a 'story' that is ;)

I am inclined to beleive it though.

ds said...

Read about this in the paper; fascinating story! But I'm even more fascinated from reading the comments here that there was a movie made about Vincent & Theo! Will have to research, as VvG's letters to his brother form one of my favorite books. Learned quite a bit due to your cleverness--thank you!
--Clueless in the States

sallymandy said...

Hmm. I guess it's plausible, but I'm left wondering why Vincent would think to take his cut-off earlobe and give it to a prostitute, if all this was a surprise. So interesting though.

Hazel, I simply loved your photo and have saved it. Thank you! I had trouble getting it open on my email account, and then trouble emailing you back, so am saying thanks here. You look lovely, dahling. Barnie Rubble? No way Jose. Love your house too.

Happy Wednesday. SM

nonizamboni said...

Not so crazy, my Vincent, aye?! What a wonderful visit I had to your site today. And I have to say, 'Me too!' I buy eggplant for their aesthetics and usually sadly have to stage a funeral for them later on.
Happy Wednesday!

willow said...

My kids used to have a weird, squishy, life like Van Gogh ear. It was always stuck in the bottom of the toy bin and would give me the creeps.

Ima Wizer said...

ooooooooooo, I LOVE this! What a concept!!

The Clever Pup said...

Willow, I have a closet deodorizer in the shape of VVG's ear. Too weird. A stocking stuffer I think.

Candie Bracci said...

Hello,yes I've heard that on tv.
Intriguing.Who knows?