The Real Story Behind van Gogh's Severed Ear

Historians now claim that van Gogh lost his ear in a fight with Paul Gauguin.

May 5, 2009, 10:38 AM

PASSAU, Germany, May 5, 2009 — -- He's known as the tortured genius who cut off his own ear, but two German historians now claim that painter Vincent van Gogh lost his ear in a fight with his friend, the French artist Paul Gauguin.

The official version about van Gogh's legendary act of self-harm usually goes that the disturbed Dutch painter severed his left ear lobe with a razor blade in a fit of lunacy after he had a row with Gauguin one evening shortly before Christmas 1888.

Bleeding heavily, van Gogh then wrapped it in cloth, walked to a nearby bordello and presented the severed ear to a prostitute, who fainted when he handed it to her.

He then went home to sleep in a blood-drenched bed, where he almost bled to death, before police, alerted by the prostitute, found him the next morning.

He was unconscious and immediately taken to the local hospital, where he asked to see his friend Gauguin when he woke up, but Gauguin refused to see him.

A new book, published in Germany by Hamburg-based historians Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans, argues that Vincent van Gogh may have made up the whole story to protect his friend Gauguin, a keen fencer, who actually lopped it off with a sword during a heated argument.

The historians say that the real version of events has never surfaced because the two men both kept a "pact of silence" - Gauguin to avoid prosecution and van Gogh in an effort trying to keep his friend with whom he was hopelessly infatuated.

Hans Kaufmann, one of the authors of the book "Pakt des Schweigens" - "Pact of Silence" in English - told ABC News that "the official version is largely based on Gauguin's accounts. It contains inconsistencies and there are plenty of hints by both artists that the truth is much more complex than the story we've all known."

"We carefully re-examined witness accounts and letters written by both artists and we came to the conclusion that van Gogh was terribly upset over Gauguin's plan to go back to Paris, after the two men had spent an unhappy stay together at the "Yellow House" in Arles, Southern France, which had been set up as a studio in the south."

"On the evening of December 23, 1888 van Gogh, seized by an attack of a metabolic disease, became very aggressive when Gauguin said he was leaving him for good. The men had a heated argument near the brothel and Vincent might have attacked his friend. Gauguin, wanting to defend himself and wanting to get rid of 'the madman' drew his weapon and made a move towards van Gogh and by that he cut off his left ear."

"We do not know for sure if the blow was an accident or a deliberate attempt to injure van Gogh, but it was dark and we suspect that Gauguin did not intend to hit his friend."

Gauguin left Arles the next day and the two men never saw each other again.

In the first letter that Vincent van Gogh wrote after the incident, he told Gauguin, "I will keep quiet about this and so will you." That apparently was the beginning of the "pact of silence."

Years later, Gauguin wrote a letter to another friend and in a reference about van Gogh he said, "A man with sealed lips, I cannot complain about him."

Kaufmann also cites correspondence between van Gogh and his brother Theo, in which the painter hints at what happened that night without directly breaking the "pact of silence" - he writes that "it is lucky Gauguin does not have a machine gun or other firearms, that he is stronger than him and that his 'passions' are stronger."

"There are plenty of hints in the documents we had at our disposal that prove the self-harm version is incorrect, but to the best of my knowledge, neither of the friends ever broke the pact of silence," says Kaufmann, who suggests that the story about van Gogh's ear needs to be re-written.

Vincent van Gogh, who painted The Starry Night, Sunflowers and the Potato Eaters but also a self-portrait with his bandaged ear to name but a few, died in 1890 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the age of 37. Gauguin died in 1903 at age 54.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events