This Day In History: Vincent Van Gogh Cuts Off His Ear (1888)

On this day in 1888, one of the strangest events in the history of art occurred.  The great Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh cut off his ear. He is regarded today as one the greatest painters of all time. At the time Van Gogh was an obscure and poverty stricken struggling artist. The painter for all his undoubted talent was a tortured soul.  After a few days of erratic behavior, Van Gogh cuts off the lower part of his ear while staying in Arles in the beautiful south of France. Van Gough was probably suffering from depression and other mental illnesses. In a delirium, he cuts off some of his ear and presented it to a local prostitute. The exact reason for this instance of self-mutilation is not really known- despite intensive research on the events of that night.

Vincent Van Gogh was born on March the 30th in 1853, in the Netherland. He was a difficult young man and he was the despair of his family. From an early age, he seems to have suffered from nervous ailments and other mental health issues from an early age. Vincent worked in art galleries and lived and worked in London for some time. Later he had a religious experience and became a committed Christian and became a preacher in Belgium. In 1880 he decided to become an artist.  Vincent was largely self-taught as a painter and this may explain his unique and exciting style of painting.

Van Gogh Irises (1889)

In 1885 he moved to Paris where his younger brother a successful art-dealer was living with his wife. The two were close and their correspondence has been published and is still widely read. Theo had many connections in the art world and he introduced him to many artists. At this time Vincent came to know leading artists such as Paul Gauguin and Georges Seurat. Vincent was inspired by these and his own style changed and he began to develop as a painter. His paintings became brighter and he began to use more light in his pictures. His early work had been noticeably dark as seen in painting such as the ‘potato-eaters’. In 1888 Van Gogh after receiving some support from his brother rented a house in the south of France in Arles. He had hopes of founding an artists’ retreat.  Van Gough began to produce some of his greatest works at this time and in particular he painted the famous sunflower series. Vincent painted many remarkable pictures of the countryside around Arles. Paul Gauguin, the great Impressionist painter came to stay with him in Arles. He was an irascible character and he was very overbearing.  They began to argue over everything and after one bitter fight Van Gogh cut off his ear. It appears that he had suffered a complete mental breakdown. After he had cut off his ear he was taken by the local police to a nearby hospital and was later transferred to an asylum in St Saint-Remy. Vincent was fortunate in that he was treated well, by the staff. He became close to one of his doctors a kindly man who encouraged Vincent to paint.  He produced some of his greatest works here- such as ‘Starry Night’. Vincent left the mental institution and moved to a small town near Paris. Here alone and in despair, convinced that he had failed at everything, he killed himself in 1890. He was only 37 years old. Since his death his fame has grown and he is recognized as one of western art’s greatest geniuses.