Today in History: Vincent Van Goghs Too Far, Severes Ear

History says he was mentally deranged. New theories suggest he was covering up for a friend. Perhaps it was simply an unfortunate choice for a last minute holiday gift idea. The only person who truly knows why Vincent Van Gogh chopped off his ear and gave it to a local prostitute is the artist himself. Whichever theory you choose to hang your hat on, the slicing took place 123 years ago today, on Dec. 22, 1888.

Most versions of the tale begin with Van Gogh sharing his rented house with fellow artist Paul Gauguin. The common theory asserts that Van Gogh, in his declining mental state, came at Gauguin with a razor blade, but inexplicably turned it on himself and chopped off his own ear. Then, he wrapped it up and gave it to a prostitute at the neighbourhood brothel, which served as one of the few, if only, places Van Gogh ever received human contact/affection.

Other versions of the story vary in the details:

–       Some say that the artist only chopped off his ear lobe, and not his entire ear. We figure that, in the overall context of the story, such semantics really don’t make a huge difference.

–       There is debate about whether Van Gogh sent or brought the ear personally to the prostitute, who may or may not have been named Rachel. If he did deliver it personally, Gauguin may or may not have found Van Gogh on the floor of his house later on, bleeding from the head.

–       No details exist as to the prostitute’s undoubtedly awkward reaction to Van Gogh’s unique gift. Let’s be honest, it’s not like feigning joy at the sight of a knitted sweater from your great aunt.

–       A theory put forth by two German art historians a few years ago suggests that Van Gogh and Gauguin got into a confrontation of sorts and the latter sliced off the former’s ear lobe with a fencing sword (evidently, Gauguin was quite the fencing enthusiast). Then, the two made a pact top keep the situation quiet.

Whichever version of the story you choose to believe, three morals remain intact: don’t wield razor blades while feeling particularly mentally unstable; the paint brush is mightier than the sword, unless the sword is in the hands of an expert fencer; flowers say “I like you” much better than a severed extremity.

– Mike Crisolago