Who Weilded The Blade That Cut Off Vincent Van Gogh’s Ear?

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Two German art historians beg to differ with the traditional story line that sees post-impressionist painter Van Gogh cutting his own ear off in a fit of pique. According to their new book, it was Paul Gauguin.From the Guardian this morning:

According to official versions, the disturbed Dutch painter cut off his ear with a razor after a row with Gauguin in 1888. Bleeding heavily, Van Gogh then walked to a brothel and presented the severed ear to an astonished prostitute called Rachel before going home to sleep in a blood-drenched bed.

But two German art historians, who have spent 10 years reviewing the police investigations, witness accounts and the artists’ letters, argue that Gauguin, a fencing ace, most likely sliced off the ear with his sword during a fight, and the two artists agreed to hush up the truth.

In Van Gogh’s Ear: Paul Gauguin and the Pact of Silence, published in Germany, Hamburg-based academics Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans argue that the official version of events, based largely on Gauguin’s accounts, contain inconsistencies and that both artists hinted that the truth was more complex.

Van Gogh and Gauguin’s troubled friendship was legendary. In 1888, Van Gogh persuaded him to come to Arles in the south of France to live with him in the Yellow House he had set up as a “studio of the south”. They spent the autumn painting together before things soured. Just before Christmas, they fell out. Van Gogh, seized by an attack of a metabolic disease became aggressive and was apparently crushed when Gauguin said he was leaving for good.

Kaufmann told the Guardian: “Near the brothel, about 300 metres from the Yellow House, there was a final encounter between them: Vincent might have attacked him, Gauguin wanted to defend himself and to get rid of this ‘madman’. He drew his weapon, made some movement in the direction of Vincent and by that cut off his left ear.” Kaufmann said it was not clear if it was an accident or an aimed hit.

While curators at the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam stand by the theory of self-mutilation, Kaufmann argues that Van Gogh dropped hints in letters to his brother, Theo, once commenting : “Luckily Gauguin … is not yet armed with machine guns and other dangerous war weapons.”

Not everyone is a believer, however:

Are these scholars by any chance graduates of Heidelberg University‘s renowned duelling tradition? I can’t imagine that Gauguin was a good enough fencer to deliver this surgical wound. He’d have been more likely to hack off Vincent’s head by mistake.

I love it when art nerds squabble. Grr…

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