Van Gogh’s own words after cutting his ear recorded in Paris newspaper
The earliest news report on the sensational incident is revealed in a book on the Sunflowers published by our correspondent
By Martin Bailey. Web only
Published online: 04 September 2013
While researching my book on Van Gogh’s Sunflowers I was astonished to find that the artist’s self-mutilation had been reported soon after it happened in a Parisian newspaper. It appeared in Le Petit Journal on 26 December 1888, three days after Van Gogh slashed off the lower part of his left ear, following a row with Gauguin. Until recently, only one short newspaper report of the mutilation was known, which was published a few days later in an Arles weekly, Le Forum Républicain.
The newly discovered article in a Parisian daily records important details. Le Petit Journal reported that Van Gogh used a razor. He then went to a “house of ill repute”, where he “gave his ear in a folded piece of paper” to the doorkeeper. Van Gogh told the recipient: “Take it, it will be useful”. These baffling words suggest that Van Gogh must have been suffering from an acute mental problem throughout the night, and did not just slice off part of his ear in a passing moment of madness.
The Parisian report is also important in another sense. Van Gogh’s self-mutilation was the first item of provincial news in Le Petit Journal, so the article must have attracted considerable attention in the capital. It would have been seen by many of his friends and much discussed in the Paris bars that Van Gogh frequented. This must have only added to the distress of his brother Theo, who was a respectable figure running an art gallery.
It seems astonishing that a virtually unknown individual living over 600km away who mutilated himself would have warranted this attention in a four-page Parisian newspaper (taking a quarter of the space devoted to provincial news that day). But even then, there was something sensationalist about the ear incident which grabbed public attention.
The self-mutilation abruptly ended the collaboration between the two artists, and Gauguin quickly headed back to Paris. Two weeks later, Van Gogh was discharged from hospital and returned to the Yellow House, his home and studio. The visitor’s room was empty, except for the bed and the Sunflowers hanging on its walls.
Later that month, Gauguin asked his friend to paint him a copy of his Fifteen Sunflowers. Van Gogh congratulated his friend on the choice, pointing out that two other Parisian artists each specialised in the peony and the hollyhock. Van Gogh then proudly told Gauguin, “the sunflower is mine”.
Here is a translation of the full report from Le Petit Journal, Paris, 26 December 1888:
Telegrams from our special correspondents, 24 December, ARLES
Yesterday evening someone called Vincent, an artist-painter from Holland, after cutting an ear with a razor, went and rang at the door of a house of ill repute and gave his ear in a folded piece of paper to the person who came to open it, saying “Take it, it will be useful”. He then left. The police searched for this individual and found him lying at his house. His very serious condition necessitated his transfer to hospital.”
Martin Bailey, The Sunflowers are Mine: The Story of Van Gogh’s Masterpiece, is published by Frances Lincoln (London), 5 September 2013
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