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The Story Behind Van Gogh's Ear As Told By Paul Gauguin

Por: María Isabel Carrasco Cara Chards 20 de noviembre de 2018

Regardless of which version is true or not, it’s clear that Vincent van Gogh’s story is still relevant and alluring

“Never meet your heroes,” people say. I guess someone should’ve passed these words of wisdom to Vincent van Gogh before he invited French painter Paul Gauguin to stay in his house. Early in 1888, van Gogh acquired a house, popularly known as the Yellow House, in Arles, France. This project gave him a new sense of life and emotion, since he dreamt of turning it into a study sanctuary or shelter for artists to stay for long seasons and share their creative process. With high hopes and the best spirit, van Gogh decided that one of his first guests should be the living artist he admired the most, and that was, of course, Paul Gauguin. He wrote one too many enthusiastic letters praising the works of the only artist he called “Master,” and even told him that he found his own “artistic ideas extremely commonplace in comparison with [Gauguin’s].” And actually, Gauguin thought so as well. In his journals, he accepted he didn’t “admire the painting but I admire the man.”

After a lot of insistence, Gauguin finally accepted the invitation of the younger artist, who seemed so eager to learn from the master artist. You can’t imagine the happiness van Gogh felt when he received the news of Gauguin’s visit along with a self-portrait of the artist. It’s said that he took the portrait everywhere with him around the town and told everybody about this important visit. As we all know, most of his life the painter had a bad economic situation, but he was so excited that he saved some money to get a couple of beds he put in the same bedroom, and even devoted some time to paint some sunflowers on the white walls of the room to make it cozier and more welcoming. 

At the beginning, everything was as he had planned it. Both started working on their paintings, and even Gauguin wrote that he had seen a huge improvement on the young Dutch painter’s style. But soon, as it generally happens with two people living together, there were certain quirks and attitudes Gauguin didn’t really like: “everywhere and in everything I found a disorder that shocked me. His colour-box could hardly contain all those tubes, crowded together and never closed.” Van Gogh might have been a mess, but Gauguin seemed to be a neat freak, not a nice combo to live together and share everything. They put together their money. Vincent would get provisions from the town, and Paul would cook for both. But the latter wasn’t that excited. In many entries of his diary, he stated that those few weeks had been an eternity for him.

Suddenly things started to go downhill. We all know about van Gogh’s mental instability, and soon Gauguin found it out himself. He wrote that several times he would wake up in the middle of the night and see his host walking towards him in a kind of creepy way. But this wasn’t the only thing. His mood would start changing, which really scared the older master. One night, while both painters were having a drink at the local café, van Gogh lost it. He got really mad and in an impulse of rage and anger he “took a light absinthe. Suddenly he flung the glass and its contents at my head. I avoided the blow and, taking him boldly in my arms, went out of the café, across the Place Victor Hugo.” Then he went to sleep as if nothing had happened. The next morning he just told him he remembered being offensive with him but nothing else. He apologized and Gauguin accepted the apology, but he told him this could happen again and that it was best for him to go back home.

Just when Gauguin thought things couldn’t get any worse, two days before Christmas he was walking down the street, and he heard some steps approaching him from the back. Scared, he looked back quickly and saw “Vincent [rushing] towards me, an open razor in his hand. My look at the moment must have had great power in it, for he stopped and, lowering his head, set off running towards home.” Confused, Gauguin spent the night at a hotel, and the next day when he went to the Yellow house to see how was van Gogh, he found the police and a crowd outside. The authorities told him that the painter had cut his ear and was found lying on his bed all covered in blood. The story as you know states that he cut his ear, went to the local brothel, and gave it to a prostitute called Rachel telling her to “keep this object like a treasure.”

Now, although Paul Gauguin and newspapers of the time told the same version, this might not be the real story behind the famous ear. According to Hans Kauffmann and Rita Wildegans, two historians who have studied the case for 10 years, claim that this is not what really happened. Well, only regarding the ear incident. Studying and analyzing the official police investigations, the witness accounts, and both characters’ letters and writings, these German art historians say the artists were in the middle of a fight when van Gogh got extremely violent and rushed towards Gauguin (as it had happened before). The latter, being more than proficient in fencing, took his sword to threaten his angry opponent. Now, they don’t really know if it was intentioned or an accident, but they’re sure it was him the one who cut van Gogh’s ear. 

So, how are they so certain? Apparently, all the declarations made by both parties, meaning van Gogh and Gauguin, are filled with inconsistencies, and there are writings by the artists with hints of what really happened. For instance, in one letter van Gogh sent to his brother about the incident, he claims that "Luckily Gauguin ... is not yet armed with machine guns and other dangerous war weapons." In the written testimony of Dr. Felix Rey, the physician who attended the artist when he was found bleeding, he claims that, despite the story saying that he only cut his lobe, the artist actually cut off his whole ear, debunking the story of Gauguin taking it with his fencing move. Regardless of which version is true or not, it’s clear that Vincent van Gogh’s story is still relevant and alluring.


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