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Van Gogh’s own words after cutting his ear recorded in Paris newspaper

The earliest news report on the sensational incident is revealed in a book on the Sunflowers published by our correspondent

Vincent van Goghs's Self-portrait with a bandaged ear, 1889, and the article that ran in the Paris paper Le Petit Journal a few days after the incident. Photos: The Courtauld Gallery, London (left) and Bibliotheque nationale de France

While researching my book on Van Gogh’s Sunflowers I was astonished to find that the artist’s self-mutilation had been reported soon after it happened in a Parisian newspaper. It appeared in Le Petit Journal on 26 December 1888, three days after Van Gogh slashed off the lower part of his left ear, following a row with Gauguin. Until recently, only one short newspaper report of the mutilation was known, which was published a few days later in an Arles weekly, Le Forum Républicain.

The newly discovered article in a Parisian daily records important details. Le Petit Journal reported that Van Gogh used a razor. He then went to a “house of ill repute”, where he “gave his ear in a folded piece of paper” to the doorkeeper. Van Gogh told the recipient: “Take it, it will be useful”. These baffling words suggest that Van Gogh must have been suffering from an acute mental problem throughout the night, and did not just slice off part of his ear in a passing moment of madness.

The Parisian report is also important in another sense. Van Gogh’s self-mutilation was the first item of provincial news in Le Petit Journal, so the article must have attracted considerable attention in the capital. It would have been seen by many of his friends and much discussed in the Paris bars that Van Gogh frequented. This must have only added to the distress of his brother Theo, who was a respectable figure running an art gallery.

It seems astonishing that a virtually unknown individual living over 600km away who mutilated himself would have warranted this attention in a four-page Parisian newspaper (taking a quarter of the space devoted to provincial news that day). But even then, there was something sensationalist about the ear incident which grabbed public attention.

The self-mutilation abruptly ended the collaboration between the two artists, and Gauguin quickly headed back to Paris. Two weeks later, Van Gogh was discharged from hospital and returned to the Yellow House, his home and studio. The visitor’s room was empty, except for the bed and the Sunflowers hanging on its walls.

Later that month, Gauguin asked his friend to paint him a copy of his Fifteen Sunflowers. Van Gogh congratulated his friend on the choice, pointing out that two other Parisian artists each specialised in the peony and the hollyhock. Van Gogh then proudly told Gauguin, “the sunflower is mine”.

Here is a translation of the full report from Le Petit Journal, Paris, 26 December 1888:

Telegrams from our special correspondents, 24 December, ARLES

Yesterday evening someone called Vincent, an artist-painter from Holland, after cutting an ear with a razor, went and rang at the door of a house of ill repute and gave his ear in a folded piece of paper to the person who came to open it, saying “Take it, it will be useful”. He then left. The police searched for this individual and found him lying at his house. His very serious condition necessitated his transfer to hospital.”

Martin Bailey, The Sunflowers are Mine: The Story of Van Gogh’s Masterpiece, is published by Frances Lincoln (London), 5 September 2013

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Comments

26 Mar 14
17:56 CET

WALTER CARRILLO, NORTH HIGHLANDS, CA 95660

My question is how long after he did this to himself did he actually paint himself?

18 Oct 13
11:39 CET

ROBERT WALSH, ANN ARBOR

Given that serious doubts have recently emerged that call into question Van Gogh's claim that the abdominal gunshot would that eventually killed him was self inflicted, I cannot help wondering in Van Gogh's claim to have mutilated his ear might not similarly be misrepresenting the truth? Gaugain's journals go to great lengths to create the impression he had parted with Vincent hours before the mutilation, but it could be that Gaugain actually inflicted the ear injury on Vincent, and Vincent was attempting to cover for Gaugain? Their relationship had been strained because Gaugain had expect Vincent to be his pupil while Vincent more accurately saw them as two equals. Under these circumstances it is entirely plausible that Gaugain would have lashed at Vicent in an attempt to dominate Vincent, and then when this failed turn around and start the exculpatory rumor that Vincent's injuries had been self inflicted. The distinction matters because it is possible Vincent was not so crazy.

24 Sep 13
15:23 CET

HANS KAUFMANN, HAMBURG (GERMANY)

A very interesting detail. The correspondent obviously transmits the official police report based on the doubtful witness of Paul Gauguin who had been interrogated as a suspect. In the short notice about the incident in the "Forum Républicain" (Arles) of 30 december 1888, Van Gogh's words while handing over the ear are reported differently: "Keep this object carefully". Another more important question: Why do you state that he cut off only "the lower part of his left ear", whereas these newspapers report that he had cut "an ear" and gave "his ear" to the person at the brothel? As to that, you should read the book "Van Goghs Ohr" by Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans, Berlin (Osburg) 2008 (ch. IV and V).

5 Sep 13
22:45 CET

LINDA VI VONA, SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO

You're in many of my feeds today Martin regarding your new book. Congratulations...I too am working with sunflowers and hollyhocks as artistic inspirations. Also roses.

5 Sep 13
16:18 CET

LUCY CHEN, SYDNEY

What is the book you're writing, Martin? I LOVE Vincent Van Gogh. Thank you for sharing this info.

5 Sep 13
17:4 CET

CHRISTINE FOWLE, DHARAMSALA, INDIA

What a unique little gem of insight. Thank you for sharing.

5 Sep 13
17:5 CET

BADIR MCCLEARY, SAN DIEGO

This was an amazing read for those who love art as I do! :)

4 Sep 13
21:9 CET

MARY F. SIBLEY, HYATTSVILLE

Thank you for this lovely jewel of information on my favourite artist. I am always intrigued at any snippet that is uncovered that helps explain the psyche that is Vincent.

4 Sep 13
21:9 CET

CHRIS MESSERSMITH, IRVING, TX

I believe his first words were, "Damn that hurt, what the hell was I thinking!"

4 Sep 13
18:21 CET

MARIE KAZALIA, PITTSBURGH

The existence of the newspaper story suggests that the artist was not *virtually unknown*-- brother of a gallery owner and friends with many noted Impressionist artists.

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