Arts, Culture & Media

Van Gogh's Ear

While we have a minute now, did you hear about Van Gogh’s ear? No, not the traditional story about how the tortured painter cut off his own ear in the depths of mental illness. No -- I mean the new version of the story, the one put out by two German art historians. They argue that Van Gogh didn’t hack off his ear himself. Instead, they suggest that the Dutch painter was attacked by his friend Paul Gauguin – artist and expert swordsman.

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The two art historians have spent decades looking over the records, and they’ve concluded that Van Gogh, or Van Gogh, and Gaugin agreed to hush up the truth. But not everybody’s convinced. Caroline Campbell is curator of paintings at London’s Courtauld Institute.

" It seems more likely, I think, to me that Van Gogh did cut his own ear off and that the theory that we have been told is the right one."

Campbell cites evidence such as contemporary journalism, Van Gogh’s correspondence with his brother Theo, and Paul Gaugin’s own letters. She adds that art historians care about the truth of the ear story because the incident took place during a period of extraordinary creativity for the two artists.

"This ear episode happens after Gaugin, he had spent this incredible two months working together in probably one of the greatest creative frenzies ever. I mean, they both start painting in the same materials, for instance; they use unusual colors; they paint the same motif. And it was such a difficult time for them because they were challenging themselves all the time. Gaugin felt you should felt from the imagination; Van Gogh from nature. They argued about this constantly, and that’s why things came to a head two days before Christmas, when Van Gogh seems to have mutilated himself."

Hey, did you catch that? She said, “Seems to have mutilated himself.” So the mystery endures.

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