May 6, 2009
Vincent, Theo and the Case of the Severed Ear
The Clever Pup is also a curious pup and I have lured you with a picture of my dog Jersey in order to lay the facts before you regarding “The Case of The Severed Ear.” I am like a dog with a bone when it comes to intriguing historical research.
Yesterday I posted that German art historians Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans claimed 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 at all, but the fiery Paul Gauguin actually lopped it off with a sword during an argument.
I got out our volumes of The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh to see what I could find to back up their theory.
Gauguin had definitely been staying at the “Yellow House” until the night Vincent lost an ear. Gauguin was the one that sent the (expensive) telegram to Theo on December 24, 1888, beseeching him to come to Arles. In fact, he returned to Paris with Theo after Christmas.
On the back of a letter written from Vincent to Theo, January 1, 1889 [Letter 566] is a page to Gauguin, written in pencil part of which says “…Look here – was my brother’s journey really necessary, old man? Now at least do reassure him completely, and I entreat you, be confident yourself that no evil exists in this best of worlds in which everything is for the best.”
In Letter 568 Vincent asks Theo “What is Gauguin doing?...I like to think he has landed on his feet. A good handshake. In spite of everything I am terribly happy that this is a thing of the past.”
The long letter of January 17, 1889  is the most revealing.
“Now we come to the expenses caused you by Gauguin's telegram, which I have already expressly reproached him for sending.
Are the expenses thus mistakenly incurred less than 200 francs? Does Gauguin himself claim that it was a brilliant step to take? Look here, I won't say more about the absurdity of this measure, suppose that I was as wild as anything, then why wasn't our illustrious partner more collected?
But I shan't press that point.
I cannot commend you enough for paying Gauguin in such a way that he can only congratulate himself on any dealings he has had with us. Unfortunately there again is another expenditure perhaps greater than it should have been, yet I catch a glimpse of hope in it. Must he not, or at least should he not, begin to see that we were not exploiting him, but on the contrary were anxious to secure him a living, the possibility of work and…and…of decency?
If that does not obtain the heights of the grandiose prospectuses for the association of artists which he proposed, and you know how he clings to it, if it does not attain the heights of his other castles in the air - then why not consider him as not responsible for the trouble and waste which his blindness may have caused both you and me?...”
“…If Gauguin stayed in Paris for a while to examine himself thoroughly, or have himself examined by a specialist, I don't honestly know what the result might be.
On various occasions I have seen him do things which you and I would not let ourselves do, because we have consciences that feel differently about things. I have heard one or two things said of him, but having seen him at very, very close quarters, I think that he is carried away by his imagination, perhaps by pride, but…practically irresponsible…”
“…How can Gauguin pretend that he was afraid of upsetting me by his presence, when he can hardly deny that he knew I kept asking for him continually, and that he was told over and over again that I insisted on seeing him at once.
Just to tell him that we should keep it between him and me, without upsetting you. He would not listen.
It worries me to go over all this and recapitulate such things over and over again…”
“…While I am often absent-minded, preoccupied with aiming at the goal, he has far more money sense for each separate day than I have. But his weakness is that by a sudden freak or animal impulse he upsets everything he has arranged…”
“…Fortunately Gauguin and I and other painters are not yet armed with machine guns and other very destructive implements of war. I for one am quite decided to go on being armed with nothing but my brush and my pen.
But with a good deal of clatter, Gauguin has nonetheless demanded in his last letter “his masks and fencing gloves” hidden in the little closet in my little yellow house.
I shall hasten to send him his toys by parcel post.
Hoping that he will never use more serious weapons.
He is physically stronger than we are, so his passions must be much stronger than ours….”
Of course there are many more instances which back up the story that Vincent did lop off his own ear. Just one can be found Letter 569, “I hope I have just had simply an artist’s fit, and then a lot of fever after very considerable loss of blood, as an artery was severed…”
Make of it what you will. Van Gogh was obviously obsessed with Gauguin. He talks to Theo about him all the time. Despite the arguments he and Gauguin had, Vincent makes reference to friendly correspondence between him and Gauguin after the "accident" I’d like to see those letters too.
These letters from Vincent to Theo are only part of the equation.
I guess I’ll have to get the book.
The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, Volume III, Bulfinch Press, 2000