Why Did Van Gogh Cut Off His Ear?

Updated on June 15, 2016

Let's Not Get Carried Away

If you're imagining a gaping hole where his ear had been, you're way out off the mark.

On Christmas Eve,1888, Vincent van Gogh cut off part of his left earlobe - far from cutting his ear off, but by no means a normal (or sensible) thing to do. The exact reasons for his extraordinary action are unknown, but here are lots of interesting theories

Throughout the mid 1880s, Van Gogh had been busily working in Paris. The Art Capital of the World had been rocked by the impressionist revolution and Van Gogh was leading a new " Post-Impressionist" wave of painting. But life was becoming a burden to the artist. The pressures of long hours at work, a close and critical artistic community, and the squalor of the city is beginning to tell.

Hoping to make a fresh start, he moved to Arles, in southeastern France, in the spring of 1888. In late autumn he was joined by fellow artist Paul Gaugin. At first their collaboration worked well, but bitter differences gradually emerged that were to culminate in a fierce argument. Van Gogh snatched up a razor and chased after Gaugin. When he failed to catch his intended victim, Van Gogh turned to himself. Gaugin wisely got out as soon as possible never saw Van Gogh again - and who could blame him?

Paul Gaugin
Paul Gaugin
Kirk Douglas,in his Academy award winning performance as Van Gogh in the 1956 film entitled Lust for Life
Kirk Douglas,in his Academy award winning performance as Van Gogh in the 1956 film entitled Lust for Life

Driven by Ill Health

Van Gogh was known to suffer from epilepsy, and the attacks caused him to be violently depressed. His lifestyle is another possible factor. Often very poor, he probably suffered from malnutrition. He was not much of a ladies' man ,but does seem to have known his away around the brothel or two. Some experts have gone as far as to suggest that Van Gogh's mental instability could be linked to the symptoms of syphilis. He was also fond of absinthe, a strong , up to 74 percent alcohol by volume, and very popular form of alcohol among bohemians of paris. Absinthe contains a subtstance called thujone, which has been shown to act in a distinctive manner in those who have epilepsy, causing hallucinations and insomnia. Depressed, argumentative, sleep-deprived, and intoxicated; could this be the mix that led Van Gogh to turn a razor to himself?

However, there are as many as thirty possible explanations for Van Gogh's seld-harm, ranging from bipolar disorder ( formely knowns as "manic depression") to periodic porphyria, a disease that famously inflicted King George III ,to a form of lead poisioning from his lead based paints. One symptom of lead poisoning is a swelling in the retina that can cause a halo effect in the sufferer's vision. This could explain bot the act of self-mutilation and the characteristic art Van Gogh produced.

Van Gogh's grave at  Auvers-sur-Oise town cemetery, France.
Van Gogh's grave at Auvers-sur-Oise town cemetery, France.

The Aftermath

Van Gogh was hospitalized after the incident and later returned to the North of the country following the closure of his home in Arles by the police. His outbursts and erratic behavior had prompted a petition from the thirty local people; which they called Van Gogh a " redheaded madman". In the hospital, Van Gogh endured long periods of isolation that forced him to pain from memory, reinterpreting earlier work or painting scenes entirled from memory rather than observation.

Increasingly depressed and largely unsuccessful as an artist, Vincent van Gogh shot himself on July 27,1890, dying two days later. His art was to become recognized and cherished around the world. As for the incident with the ear and the razor, many theories have been put forward, but two weeks later after the event, Van Gogh described it in a letter to his brother Theo as " simply as an artist's fit"; perhaps that should be explanation enough

The Starry Night
The Starry Night
Digitalis is a  leaf of the common foxglove containing glycosides and serving as a powerful cardiac stimulant and a diuretic
Digitalis is a leaf of the common foxglove containing glycosides and serving as a powerful cardiac stimulant and a diuretic

Did You Know That . . .

  • Van Gogh wrapped the bloody earlobe in newspaper and took it to a local brothel. There he placed it in the care of a prostitute called Rachel, telling her to "guard this object carefully".
  • Sunflowers were the subject of many Van Gogh's paintings and also provided the backgrounds for others
  • One of the treatments for epilepsy in Van Gogh's time was digitalis This drug is derived from the common foxglove. It can cause yellow-tinted vision or yellow spots. This may account for the swirling features in the starry night (1889) and the yellow tones in some of Van Gogh's other paintings.

Questions & Answers


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    • profile image


      6 years ago

      An interesting hub offering several theories behind Van Gogh's self-mutilation. It is remarkable that his paintings, though often created when the artist was in a state of turmoil or deep depression, continue to be a source of inspiration and joy for so many people.

    • jolinabetts profile imageAUTHOR

      Sunshine Diaz 

      7 years ago from Wichita, Kansas

      Thank you nothuk! he is far the greatest, in my book. Thank you for your comment..

    • nothuk profile image


      7 years ago from Varna, Bulgaria

      A great hub on a great artist! Job well done !

    • jolinabetts profile imageAUTHOR

      Sunshine Diaz 

      7 years ago from Wichita, Kansas

      Thank you for your comment! I very much appreciate it.

    • annerivendell profile image


      7 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      Both as a student of psychology and a fan of the works of Van Gogh I found this article interesting and well written. Thank you.


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