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How Van Gogh’s Ear Incident Went ‘Viral’ in 1888

The hospital in Arles where Van Gogh stayed after he cut off his ear (photograph by the author)
The hospital in Arles where Vincent van Gogh stayed after he cut off his ear (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)

Vincent van Gogh had big dreams for his stay in the town of Arles, for the partnership he would build with fellow artist Paul Gauguin in that Yellow House in Provence. Alas, as has become art history lore, it would go rather poorly, with the image of the fragile painter of sunflowers with his head wrapped after he sliced off part of his ear as vivid as it gets for a self-portrait of despair.

1889 self-portrait by Vincent van Gogh (via Wikimedia)
1889 self-portrait by Vincent van Gogh (via Wikimedia)

In a book by Martin Bailey published this month, The Sunflowers are Mine: The Story of Van Gogh’s Masterpiece, the first account of the unfortunate incident is unearthed. As Bailey writes in his piece in the Art Newspaper, what is most surprising is that the slicing was reported so quickly in Paris, on December 26, 1888 — just three days after the fact and coincidentally the same day Gauguin dodged town — and it’s unexpected that “a virtually unknown individual living over 600km away who mutilated himself would have warranted this attention in a four-page Parisian newspaper.” However, Le Petit Journal was long a fan of the sensational from the provinces in addition to its serious news (I own one issue that shows twins committing suicide together, and another of a marriage in a hot air balloon) — it is an interesting example of how things when “viral” centuries ago.

Here’s the original text of the telegram from 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.

“Someone called Vincent.” Well, it would take a while for his canvases to be appreciated, even in Arles where he certainly made his mark. Bailey’s book does seem promising for some great new insight into this time of van Gogh’s life, and also includes a long-lost photograph of a painting called “Six Sunflowers” that was destroyed in 1945 during the bombing of Osaka, Japan. However, the dignity that van Gogh lost to what seems to have been mental illness, speculated to be bipolar disorder coupled with depression, may never be recovered.

The Sunflowers are Mine: The Story of Van Gogh’s Masterpiece by Martin Bailey is available on Amazon

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