On a cold winter night in 1888, Vincent Van Gogh cut off his ear with a razor blade. He wrapped it in a cloth and brought it to a brothel. He gave the bloody ear as a token of love to a prostitute named Rachel, who fainted when she saw it. Van Gogh returned home and almost bled to death. This is the most common story of Van Gogh’s famous fit of madness, but there are competing theories.
Rachel contacted the police, and the next morning the mutilated Van Gogh was found and taken to the hospital. Van Gogh asked to speak to his friend and fellow artist, Paul Gauguin. Gauguin refused and left town. Gauguin and Van Gogh had a rocky friendship. One theory is that Van Gogh was unhappy that Gauguin was planning to leave and attacked him. Gauguin, an expert swordsman, could have easily sliced off his ear. And Van Gogh not wanting to get his friend in trouble could have made up the story about doing it himself. In a letter from Van Gogh to Gauguin, he mysteriously writes, “I will keep quiet about this and so will you.”
Van Gogh expert Martin Bailey has recently written a book with a third competing theory. He says Van Gogh likely received word about his brother Theo’s plans for marriage on the same day that he cut off his ear. Van Gogh was financially dependent on Theo and might have been worried that his brother would no longer support him. Bailey says, “It was fear that pulled the trigger and led to the breakdown. Fear of being abandoned in both an emotional and financial way.”
While the reason Van Gogh lost his ear is lost in history, in more recent news, Van Gogh’s ear has been regrown in a lab. Artist Diemut Strebe first created a clear mold of Van Gogh’s ear based on a historical photograph. With the help of scientists from Harvard and MIT, skin cells taken from Van Gogh’s brother’s great grandson were regrown inside the clear mold. She says, “I use science basically like a type of brush, like Vincent used paint.” To see this living work of art and learn more about why it was made, watch this video with Diemut Strebe.