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Why did Van Gogh chop off his ear?

The history of art is, as you probably know or can guess, quite broad. So massive in fact that my little brain gets overwhelmed by the scope and I can’t imagine writing about anything, at least in a way that would do it any justice! So, my partner advised me to start small. Something simple. He asked me, “Why did Van Gogh chop off his ear?” And so I said, “Well, I don’t know, I think he was a bit upset at being spurned by a lady so chopped it off and sent it to her in the mail.” And he was like, “WHAT?? That’s nuts! I didn’t know that.” (I was wrong though, but we’ll get to that – READ ON TO FIND OUT! Haha, clickbait)
 
And so here we are! Let’s talk about Vincent Van Gogh. 
 
Vincent Van Gogh, Self Portrait
Vincent Van Gogh, Self Portrait, 1889, oil on canvas, 65cm x 54cm, Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France

Poor Vincent.

The best Doctor Who episode in the whole series is, in my opinion, the one where the 11th Doctor and his companion Amelia Pond travel to 19th Century France. There, they chance upon this lonely Dutch painter who lives in a tiny town that happens to be having some alien problems. One of the major themes in this episode about Van Gogh, and certainly in his life, was that he was not successful in his own time. In fact, people really disliked his work! We know now that he was actually an amazing genius and his works mark a very important change in painting, but to his contemporaries (and, sadly, himself), he used weird colour and silly brush strokes. THE most heart-wrenching scene in the aforementioned Doctor Who episode is when they take him to the future, to a Van Gogh exhibit, and Bill Nighy gives this absolutely lovely speech, and it’s all overwhelming and oh my heart! (Not sponsored by BBC)

So yes, Van Gogh had a bit of a hard life. As a young adult, he hopped around from job to job, working at museums in Paris and London. At 24 he decided he wanted to be a clergyman, but was actually kicked out for being TOO zealous and emotional. He had an intensity that others found hard to deal with. In 1880 at the age of 27, he decided to become an artist. He didn’t do well with classes and being taught, so he made his own way. This is how we ended up with such a unique style. Sadly, as seen in Doctor Who Season 5 Episode 10, no one seemed to appreciate it. He painted hundreds of paintings, including 37 self-portraits. He painted so much that he ended up getting booted out of a hotel he was staying at in Arles in the south of France – because they took up too much space! 

He was lonely, shunned by both his community and society as a whole, and a little bit crazy. His only friend was his brother Theo. He was close friends with fellow painter Paul Gauguin for a short time but they had a falling out. And THIS is what prompted him to cut off his ear. Gaugin had come to stay with him in Arles in 1888 and they hung out and painted together for several months. Unfortunately, Gauguin was a bit of an a-hole and didn’t really care about anyone but himself. They would quarrel quite viciously about art, and it reached its boiling point in December of that year. Van Gogh got very upset and confronted Gauguin with an open razor! But instead of attacking, he turned and ran to a local brothel, where he cut his ear off and gave it to one of the prostitutes. Gauguin found him there but didn’t help much- just told Theo and then ran off back to Paris. Van Gogh paints yet another self-portrait to remember the pain. 

Vincent Van Gogh, Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear
Vincent Van Gogh, Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889, oil on canvas, 60cmx49cm. Courtauld Institute of Art, London, UK

Six months after this incident, Van Gogh is in a mental asylum. Something that kinda grinds my gears is this romanticising of mental illness and art. Some people use Van Gogh as an example of letting your mental illness run free to create good art, or say they’re scared of treatment dulling their creativity or expression. Let’s look at Van Gogh though. He spent time in the asylum between 1889 and 1890, and this is where some of his best works were created – or at least some of his most famous. The well known Starry Night (1889) was the view he saw from his window. He painted portraits of his friend Joseph Roulin, the only person in town who didn’t despise him. He found out Theo had a baby boy and was so excited he painted Branches of an Almond Tree in Blossom (1890). It was not all dreary.. until you get to Prisoners Exercising (1890) which does show how trapped he felt and how tedious he found the asylum to be.

Vincent Van Gogh, The Starry Night
Vincent Van Gogh, The Starry Night, 1889, oil on canvas, 73cm x 92cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA.
Vincent Van Gogh, Portait of the Postman Joseph Roulin
Vincent Van Gogh, Portait of the Postman Joseph Roulin, 1889, oil on canvas, 66cm x 55, Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, USA
Vincent Van Gogh, Branches of an Almond Tree in Blossom
Vincent Van Gogh, Branches of an Almond Tree in Blossom, 1890, oil on canvas, 73cm x 92cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Vincent Van Gogh, Prisoners Exercising
Vincent Van Gogh, Prisoners Exercising, 1890, oil on canvas, 80cm x 64cm, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, Russia

Okay so looking at that last one, maybe treatment didn’t do much for him. But let’s not forget, this is the late 19th Century – I don’t think that mental health studies were very advanced. In fact, I’m pretty sure they just put them aside away from everybody else. Which may have given him some structure and time to create paintings… but probably not the standard of care we are lucky enough to have today. He did end up killing himself once he was released, after all.

OR DID HE?

Van Gogh died of a gunshot wound to the stomach. Some rumours have been going around lately (i.e. the last 20 or so years) that he was actually shot by a pair of kids running amok in some fields near his house, and Van Gogh said he did it himself because he didn’t want them to get in trouble. Indeed, a stomach wound that didn’t kill him right away but left him in agony for two days seems a bit of a rough way to commit suicide. And this is what I’ll choose to believe because I really feel for the guy. Not only was his art neglected when it should have been celebrated IN HIS TIME, but he had a rough go of it in general, and he deserved better. 

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