Self-Portrait (1887) by Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890)The Art Institute of Chicago
On the 23rd of December 1888, in a small house in Arles in the South of France, one of the most famous artists of all time — Vincent Van Gogh — feverishly cut off his own ear in a mysterious act of self-mutilation.
This is one of the most famous moments in art history... but why did he do it?
The Bedroom (October 1888) by Vincent van GoghVan Gogh Museum
Van Gogh moved to the 'Yellow House' in Arles to paint in 1888. His painting The Bedroom was made whilst there.
Autograph letter, dated 17 October 1888, to Paul Gauguin (1888) by Vincent van GoghThe Morgan Library & Museum
Van Gogh's friend and fellow painter, Paul Gauguin planned to visit in October. Eagerly anticipating his impending visit, in this letter to his friend Van Gogh promised that, en route from Pont-Aven to Arles, Gauguin would see "miles and miles of countryside of different kinds with autumn splendors."
Van Gogh also reported that a recent bout of eyestrain forced him to remain indoors and paint an interior "with a simplicity à la Seurat." This painting was The Bedroom — sketched and vividly described here — in which he "had wished to express utter repose with all these very different tones."
Van Gogh expressed his desire to talk with Gauguin about this and other paintings, admitting that "I often don't know what I'm doing, working almost like a sleepwalker."
Gauguin's chair (December 1888 - 1888) by Vincent van GoghVan Gogh Museum
Van Gogh painted this chair as a kind of portrait of his colleague Paul Gauguin during the time he stayed with him in Arles. He later wrote: 'It is a study of his armchair of dark, red-brown wood, the seat of greenish straw, and in the absent person's place a lighted candlestick and some modern novels.' The pair were close — both professionally and personally.
Self-Portrait (1889) by Vincent van GoghNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC
But Gauguin and Van Gogh often quarrelled about grand topics like the very nature of art itself. Their friendship gradually deteriorated.
The circumstances in which Van Gogh cut off his ear are not exactly known, but many experts believe that it was following a furious row with Gauguin at the Yellow House. Afterwards, Van Gogh allegedly packaged up the ear and gave it to a prostitute in a nearby brothel. He was then admitted to a hospital in Arles.
Undergrowth with Two Figures (1890) by Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, b.1853, d.1890)Cincinnati Art Museum