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In One Ear, and Out the Other

Separating tall tales from truth in the case of van Gogh’s ill-fated ear


NOV 28, 2022 | ISSUE 8

Avid admirers of Vincent van Gogh could no doubt describe Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear in great detail. He sits in solemn contemplation, a thick blue cap concealing his now infamous red hair. Penetrating, still blue eyes gaze out from a hauntingly gaunt face. An open window, a Japanese print, and a canvas on an easel wait patiently behind him. And, as the work’s title suggests, a bandage swaddles his ear. Which ear, you ask? That, to this day, is a hotly debated detail. van Gogh gifted us with an extraordinary insight into his artistic process and psychological state; a swathe of hand-written letters between himself and correspondents deftly piece together the pivotal details of his life. However, conflicting witness accounts (alongside the impishly perplexing self-portrait) have planted seeds of doubt regarding the specifics of his notorious self-mutilation. Not only do we doubt which ear was chosen for the razor-blade guillotine, but we are also left questioning how much was removed, who removed it, and who received the bloody reward after the fact. One thing is certain; people are still hunting for the truth, and are keeping their ears to the ground for clues to this day.

Let’s begin with the question of which ear he chose for the chopping block. Several reputable resources, including the official Van Gogh Museum of the Netherlands, The Courtauld Institute of Art, and The History Channel, confidently affirm that the severed ear was his left. However, on viewing the portrait itself, it seems obvious that the chosen ear was his right. To unpack these conflicting messages, we must consider what we know of van Gogh as an artist. van Gogh painted some 36 self-portraits over the course of 10 years, but not out of vanity. At the time, hiring models to sit for portraits was too expensive an option for the impoverished artist. Therefore, in order to hone his skills as a portraitist, he used himself as a model, a cheap and effective alternative which allowed him to master the craft. It has therefore been argued, and widely accepted, that by painting himself using a mirror, our eye has been tricked by the mirror-image that we are receiving, and we therefore falsely believe that the damaged ear is on the right side, not the left.

This has been a point of confusion and debate for decades. Over 30 years ago, tucked between advertisements for Broadway shows, among a flurry of letters discussing politics, Palestine, andFranz Schubert’s sexuality, lies an example of the relentless dispute between left and right in the pages of The New York Times. On September 17th 1989, the paper posted a response on their Letters page from reader Scott A. Bailey, remarking on a recent article by John Russell entitled “The Ear in the Mirror.” Bailey argues that Russell is “in error” by stating that the severed ear was the right, asserting that, “in the days following his self-mutilation, van Gogh painted his self-portraits in front of a mirror. Hence, bearing the reverse image.”

Bailey’s response to Russell’s article does raise another interesting question; he goes on to state that van Gogh removed “the lower lobe” of the ear. However, owing to the work of art historian and author Bernadette Murphy, we now know more. At first, it appeared that contrasting witness accounts, from that time, were the only pieces of evidence at our disposal. Some claimed it was only the lobe that was removed, while others believed it to be the entire appendage. Revelatory new evidence came to light when Murphy released her book, Van Gogh’s Ear, in 2016, claiming she had unearthed a vital document while investigating the archives of Irving Stone. Stone was an American writer, who had travelled to Arles, France in 1930 to interview van Gogh’s doctor, Félix Rey, hoping to gain information for his upcoming novel, Lust For Life. While searching through Stone’s archives, Murphy discovered a sketch penned by Dr. Rey himself; having torn a scrap of prescription paper from its pad, Rey illustrated the arc of van Gogh’s wound. The drawing clearly indicates that almost the entire ear was removed. As previously mentioned, several witness accounts from the time had suggested otherwise. A particularly pertinent letter from French artist Paul Signac was written after visiting van Gogh in hospital and claimed that it was the lobe only, and “not the whole ear”. However, when revisiting that letter, Murphy found one line stating that on his visit, van Gogh was “dressed as usual, wearing a band round his head and a fur cap.”  During a talk at the Morrison Library at UC Berkeley, Murphy unveiled that it was at this point that she realized no-one had ever seen the ear uncovered, rendering Signac’s assertion that it was only the lobe to be unsubstantiated.

Some might wonder at the relevance of this new information. In a blog article for The Arts Newspaper online, Martin Bailey rightly states that, “the main point is that van Gogh was in such a disturbed state that he severely mutilated himself. But it would still be instructive to know the extent of his injury. If it was the entire ear, it suggests that van Gogh was determined to cause maximum damage and possibly death. If it was just part of the ear, it could have been more of a plea for help.” Extensive research, alternative theories, and new information help us piece together parts of van Gogh’s psyche that allow us to appreciate and understand the artist in new ways.

Additional facts surrounding the event have been contested over the years. While most believe that this was an act of self-harm, two reputable German academics, Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans, published a book in 2008 offering an alternative theory. In Van Gogh’s Ear: Paul Gauguin and the Pact of Silence, they argue that Gauguin severed the ear with a sword and that the two artists had kept the truth a secret from the world. There has also been doubt cast upon who van Gogh gave his ear to. Murphy addresses this point in Van Gogh’s Ear, claiming that, contrary to popular belief, the artist did not bestow his ear upon a local sex worker named Rachel, who was employed at a local Maison de Tolérance. Instead, Murphy states that he bestowed the trophy upon a maid named Gabrielle who worked in a brothel in Arles. This would seem to contradict information from other sources, such as the Van Gogh Museum and the Van Gogh Gallery online.

Writer Adam Gopnik, in a 2009 article for The New Yorker entitled “Van Gogh’s Ear,” discusses Kaufmann and Wildegan’s book, arguing the following point; “It’s tempting, and not altogether wrong, to dismiss the question as trivial, or beside the point. But ears do not haunt ages without reasons.” The incessant deliberation, investigation and intrigue in this case proves that we are not yet satisfied on all points of this bloody story. Additionally, the legend of this historic event continues to permeate our everyday lives, our artistry, and our cultural spaces. On Whiskey Row in Prescott, Arizona, you can find the Van Gogh’s Ear art gallery. In Union, New Jersey, you may step inside the Van Gogh’s Ear café for an evening of good food and live music. And just this year, Paste Magazine named American rapper and painter ZelooperZ’s newest work, entitled Van Gogh’s Left Ear, one of the best new albums of 2021.

ZelooperZ’s album art pays tribute to van Gogh’s self-portrait, a bloodstained, contemporary rendition of the original set against a swirling backdrop of Starry Night. However, ZelooperZ has switched the direction of the subject around; he is facing left, with the blood-soaked bandage seeping into the stark white fabric of his left shoulder. Is this, too, a mirror image? Is the picture we’re viewing a reflection, an impish trick leading us to believe the opposite of what is true? The subject stares steadily outwards with a stoic, unreadable expression; perhaps he’ll keep this secret to himself, and let us revel in the joy of discovery on the road to the truth.