Did Vincent van Gogh Cut Off His Ear Because His Brother Was Getting Married?

A new theory emerges.

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889). Courtesy the Courtauld Gallery, London.

Vincent van Gogh owes his fame to two things: his groundbreaking canvases, and the fact that he cut off his ear in a fit of madness.

This gruesome act of self-mutilation has long been the subject of fascination for art lovers and historians alike, and a new theory argues that it was the news of his brother’s engagement that triggered the infamous incident.

In the forthcoming book Studio of the South: Van Gogh in Provence, Martin Bailey has produced new evidence that suggests that van Gogh received a letter on December 23, 1888, the very day he cut off his ear, informing him that Theo van Gogh was to marry Johanna Bonger, reports the Guardian. (The book also claims to have tracked down the location of the bed depicted in Van Gogh’s famous paintings The Bedroom, of which there are three versions.)

 Jo van Gogh-Bonger. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Johanna van Gogh-Bonger. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Vincent van Gogh letter archive includes a letter received January 9, 1889, in which Bonger enclosed a copy of her official engagement announcement. Bailey claims to have uncovered an earlier missive from Theo, containing 100 francs and news of that Bonger had accepted his proposal. He argues that van Gogh would have felt threatened by the impending marriage, which might have kept Theo from continuing to support him financially, and interfered with the close relationship between the brothers.

Bailey’s case is threatened by a closer examination of van Gogh’s known correspondence. Letters written by the artist to his brother on January 4 and January 7 make no mention of the impending nuptials. Van Gogh acknowledges receipt of the engagement announcement Bonger sent in a letter to Theo on January 9, noting that “I’ve already replied to her with my sincere congratulations, as I repeat them here to you.”

Rather than opposing the union, van Gogh wrote to Theo on January 22, advising him to make sure “that your marriage isn’t delayed,” and reminding him that “by marrying you’re putting Mother’s mind at rest and making her happy.”

Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night (1889). Courtesy the Museum of Modern Art.

Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night (1889). Courtesy the Museum of Modern Art.

Previously, it was thought that Van Gogh cut off his ear because of a fight with his friend Paul Gauguin, who had been staying with him in Arles. Van Gogh had hoped this would be the start of a dynamic artists’ colony, but the arrangement only lasted a few short months before the fateful fight, after which the pair never again met. (A competing theory claims that it was Gauguin, not Van Gogh, who actually severed the ear during the quarrel.)

After severing his ear, van Gogh famously gifted it to a local woman. Some say this was a prostitute that he and Gauguin had argued over, a woman named Rachel A recently-put forth theory from the book Van Gogh’s Ear: The True Story claims the recipient was one Gabrielle Berlatier, a farmer’s daughter who worked as a maid in the brothel.

The exact nature and underlying causes of van Gogh’s madness are similarly the subject of much debate. A group of doctors, psychiatrists, and art historians recently convened at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum and diagnosed the painter with psychosis. Other proposed theories have included bipolar disorder, temporal lobe epilepsy, syphilis, borderline personality disorder, cycloid psychosis, and schizophrenia.

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