French history myths: Van Gogh cut off his ear to impress a girl

The Dutch painter - a long-time France resident - has become almost as famous for the ear story as for his art, but what really happened?

French history myths: Van Gogh cut off his ear to impress a girl
A Vincent Van Gogh self-portrait displayed at the Orsay Museum in Paris. Photo by BERTRAND GUAY / AFP

Myth: Painter Vincent Van Gogh, when living in Arles in southern France, cut off his own ear in order to impress a girl.

Partly due to his self-portrait with bandaged head, the ear story has become one of the best-known things about the impressionist artist, and is often considered a bit of a joke – as in the below anti-social behaviour campaign from local authorities in Paris, showing his portrait with the caption ‘when the neighbours want to cut off their own ears because of the noise you’re making under their window’.

But in fact, the story is much darker than that.

In 1888, when living in Arles in Provence, Van Gogh really did cut off his own ear.

Medical reports from the local doctor showed that this was a major piece of self-mutilation, the entire ear was removed and Van Gogh nearly died from the ensuing shock and infection.

After he performed the grisly act, he put the ear in a box, went to the town brothel and handed it to a girl, who was so distressed when she saw the contents that she fainted. Newspaper reports from the time claim that she was either a prostitute or a cleaner employed at the town brothel, but there is no evidence that Van Gogh had any particular relationship with her.

So why did he do it?

It’s hard to say exactly, but Van Gogh struggled with severe mental health problems for much of his adult life, spent time in an asylum and eventually took his own life at the age of 37.

When the self-mutilation took place he was in a very distressed state as his dream of an artistic commune in Arles was collapsing and he had violently quarrelled with one of his closest friends, the painter Paul Gaugin.

Whatever happened, Van Gogh was a superlative talent whose art continues to echo down the ages, and he deserves to be remembered for that, not as the butt of ‘ear’ jokes.

This is part of our August series looking at misconceptions about French history.

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