A well-known anecdote among art lovers, this gesture is still misunderstood by many of us. The cursed painter did cut his left earlobe one evening in 1888, but how did he come to this unfortunate act?

Art Shortlist
by Thibault de Watrigant - December 31, 2020

A Sunday evening like no other

On 23 December 1888, a rainy day in Arles, Vincent van Gogh received a letter from his brother Theo, who announced that he would soon be engaged. The painter took this news very badly, his brother being his only moral and financial support. Consequently, Vincent immediately feels betrayed. Moreover, Paul Gauguin, who lives with Vincent van Gogh in Arles, will not sleep at the "Maison jaune" (Yellow house) tonight. He can no longer bear the conflicts with the painter, and decides the next morning to escape to Paris.

Vincent van Gogh, the unloved genius? 

On this sad day in December 1888, the painter thinks he has lost two essential people in his life, his brother Theo and his friend Paul Gauguin. The cursed painter then spends his evening in his house, until he manages to slice off a piece of his ear in front of his mirror. 

The murder weapon? A simple razor, the blood flows freely, as a sponge, the painter uses his own sheets, then leaves his house to go to a brothel called the "maison de la tolérance n°1". He then asks for one called "Rachel", he gives her his earlobe wrapped in a simple newspaper. The poor girl immediately faints at the sight of this bloody piece of flesh. Later on, we learned that this Rachel was in fact Bernadette and that she was the cleaning lady of the brothel. This example of mutilation is unique in the history of art, just like the Dutch artist.

A gesture with no impact?

Some historians link this gesture to the fact that the painter had wished to become a pastor, this act would be "a Christic posture" adopted by the artist, offering a piece of his body to this young woman. Following this incomprehensible act of self-mutilation, Vincent spent his Christmas in a hospital. About ten days later, he returned to the Yellow house.

The passage of a letter written to his brother enlightens us on his gesture: "I assure you that a few days in the hospital were very interesting and perhaps we learn how to live from the sick. I hope that I only had a simple artist's toquade, and then a lot of fever following a very considerable loss of blood, an artery having been cut, but my appetite came back immediately, digestion is going well and the blood is replenished from day to day, and so from day to day, serenity comes back to my head. So I beg you to forget your sad journey and my illness with deliberate bias.".

Eighteen months later, the painter unfortunately went further, he committed suicide with a revolver in the middle of a field, with a bullet in his chest. As with his severed ear, Vincent will find the strength to walk to his inn. He died there two days later with his brother at his bedside.