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Van Gogh’s Ear

Van Gogh’s Ear (1888)

by Vincent Van Gogh

(65 x 95 cm) Oil on canvas

Painted during his stay in Arles this is one of the most revealing of many Van Gogh’s self-portraits as it sheds some light on the greatest mystery of the Dutch artist’s turbulent life: why did he cut his ear? It is known that at the time of the incident Van Gogh was suffering of migraines and hallucinations caused by a new brand of paint thinner he had began using by recommendation of his best friend Gaugin who got a discount from the chemist but stuffed his nostrils with cotton while painting to avoid the poisonous fumes. Van Gogh developed an allergic reaction and a constant itch on his ears deprived him of sleep. This facts combined with an inflammation of his ears and gums led him to believe that the ears had begun to grow at an alarming rate. As a schoolboy he had been teased frequently by other kids who made fun of the color of his hair and pulled his ears to provoke him. This childhood experiences had traumatized young Van Gogh who would suffer a fit of rage if anybody touched his ears. One afternoon, when they were painting the same fruit basket to save some scarce money, fellow painter Gaugin introduced the wet tip of his brush in Van Gogh’s ear when the Dutch genius was not looking and Van Gogh reacted violently. He forced Gaugin to eat his temperas and left the room to hide inside a cupboard for two weeks. He became obsessed with the idea that his failure as an artist was caused by his ears and spent hours every day watching them in the mirror. He was convinced his right ear was getting larger every day and would eventually take over his entire head. This was what he wrote in a letter to his brother Theo dated 1888:

‘ I suffer terribly, my teeth ache and I live in constant fear of my own right ear, it is growing fast and I fear it will very soon occupy my whole head. Oh Theo, you don’t know how lucky you are to have ears that remain attached to your head and do not behave viciously. I have dreams in which I am chased by giant flapping yellow ears and I fear they will stomp me to death if they catch me. I wake up drenched in cold sweat and hear my ears laugh at my weakened condition. I fear the worst and it is taking a toll in my work as I can feel them there murmuring about my work and making derisive comments about the amount of color I use. It is very difficult to watch them and I have to carry a mirror everywhere I go to do so. I live in fear, please send me more money so I can support my miserable existence. Your crazy brother, Vincent.’

This the last known letter to his brother before mutilating himself. He painted the portrait short after and thanks to tribunal records we know that Van Gogh was the plaintiff in a case of harassment against his ears filed in the Arles tribunal. The Van Gogh vs. Van Gogh’s Ears case was swiftly dismissed by the judge as there was no precedent of a man suing his own anatomy and Van Gogh was sentenced to pay the trial costs. This was probably a big blow because that night he visited a local brothel to vent his frustration in sex and absinthe. Unable to work a decent erection he cut off his right ear in a fit of fury, as he had become convinced it was the one culprit behind of all his misfortunes while his left ear was just following the lead of its evil right counterpart. This Van Gogh’s self portrait is revealing in that sense, in the characteristically subjective and emotional style of the Dutch master it portraits his ear as he saw it: a threatening presence looming over the entire head, Van Gogh’s gaze spying with distrust in the mirror. Unfortunately in his state of drunk distress Van Gogh failed to realize that the inverted reflection in the mirror actually corresponded to his left ear, so his agony knew no limits when the next morning he woke up in bloodied pillow with the missing ear resting inside his chamber pot to discover he had severed the wrong ear.

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