Why did the painter Vincent van Gogh cut off his left ear?

The Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890) is famous for many reasons. Some of these are pleasant, like the beauty of his works – first and foremost Sunflowers or The starry night – or his ability to anticipate the tastes of the times. Others less pleasant, such as the fact that he struggled to support himself throughout his life, that he drank a lot and that he suffered from a mysterious illness, probably of a mental nature. It is also quite well known that the December 23, 1888 the painter he cut off his left earas one of his also testifies self-portrait of 1889, which you see on the cover of this article. If you are wondering why the bandaged wound appears on the right and not on the left in the painting, the reason is because the work was done in front of a mirror.
But why did van Gogh cut off his ear? It's not easy to answer, but from the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam they tried to make some hypotheses, reconstructing the story with all the details available today. A possible hypothesis is that the gesture was a drastic reaction to the symptoms of an illness, the Meniere's syndrome, which affects the ear and causes dizziness, nausea and hearing problems. The story begins in the autumn of 1888, when Vincent was in the city of Arles, in the South of France. He worked and lived inside the famous “Yellow House“, which is also at the center of one of his paintings. Together with him, as a guest, there was also another artist (already famous and older than him at the time), Paul Gauguin. THE relationships between the two, initially good, they deteriorated in a short time.

Vincent van Gogh, The Yellow House, circa 1888, Van Gogh Museum

The evening in 1888 when van Gogh cut off his ear

On the evening of Sunday 23 December 1888, the two artists had a big argument. It was then that van Gogh's mysterious illness manifested itself: he began to have hallucinations and “attacks” during which he lost consciousness. During one of these moments, he used the razor to cut off his ear, then wrapped it up and he handed it over to a womanprobably a prostitute in a nearby brothel.

The next morning the police arrived, found him in the house and took him to hospital: a doctor called Felix Ray he examined him, confirming that nothing remained of the ear attached to his head: there is even a doctor's sketch showing the mutilation. Gauguin immediately sent a telegram to Vincent's brother, Theo, who took the first train to be next to him. Vincent regained consciousness only after a week of convalescence: he remembered very little of what had happened and did not want to talk about his illness. When his brother asked him what had happened to him, he replied that he had “a simple attack of artist madness“.

The hypothesis of a reaction to the symptoms of Manière syndrome

Unfortunately, these attacks and they did not stop appearing, and Vincent had to live the rest of his life in fear that they would manifest themselves in an unpredictable way, constituting a constant danger to his health. This “mental or nervous fever, or disease, or insanity“, as he himself tried to define it, has not been identified even today. According to a study published in 1990 in JAMAscientific journal fromAmerican Medical Associationthe symptoms could be those of Meniere's syndrome, an ear pathology that causes dizziness, nausea, hearing problems and tinnitus (i.e. a kind of constant whistling or buzzing) and for which even today there is no real diagnostic test. This would possibly explain the dizziness and nausea reported by the artist in several letters, as well as the vomiting, the intolerance to noise and the hearing loss up to nystagmus, an uncontrolled movement of the eyes that could have been mistaken for hallucinations.

Could this be the trigger for the crisis of December 1888? There are no certain answers yet. According to experts, however, the fact of having lived and worked next to a famous artist like Gauguin did not help, on the contrary: the Dutch artist felt a enormous performative pressure, and the idea that his colleague and friend could leave home, leaving him, must have made the matter worse. Nervousness, heavy alcohol consumption and his illness probably did the rest.

yellow van gogh