Until now, the way of testing whether or not someone had good biographical knowledge of Vincent Van Gogh was to ask them about the famous ear-cutting incident. The answer ‘he cut off his ear’ informed you the speaker had only a hazy comprehension, whereas the knowledgeable person replied ‘in actuality, Van Gogh cut off only part of his ear’. Now new information suggests that Van Gogh did indeed cut off his whole left ear. On the Verge of Insanity: Van Gogh and His Illness, a new exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (closes 25 September), accompanied by an excellent catalogue, attempts to get as close as possible to the truth about Van Gogh’s physical and mental illnesses.
The confusion about the ear incident sprang up during Van Gogh’s lifetime. On the 23 December 1888, Van Gogh was living with Paul Gauguin at the Yellow House in Arles. Gauguin announced his intention to leave Arles after persistent rows with Van Gogh. Deeply anxious and depressed, Van Gogh slashed his ear with a razor. He presented the ear wrapped in newspaper to a prostitute at a local brothel. The next day police discovered Van Gogh unconscious in his house surrounded by blood. Vincent’s brother Theo (who supported him morally and financially) raced from Paris on Christmas Day to comfort Van Gogh in Arles hospital.
Jo Van Gogh-Bonger (Van Gogh’s sister-in-law and someone who met him several times after the incident) claimed it was part of the ear, whereas doctors, policemen and reporters in Arles claimed it was the entire ear. Van Gogh became ashamed of his mutilation and attempted to conceal it, leading to the contradictory statements of associates. Some witnesses may not have seen the injury clearly and others repeated what they had been told. What seems to be the clinching proof that he did cut off almost his whole ear (except a stump of the lobe) is a diagram made by Dr Felix Rey, the attending physician in Arles.
While biographically interesting, the ear incident in no way helps us understand Van Gogh’s art. What does have more bearing on his artistic production and life is the multiple illnesses he suffered from. Irritable and melancholy by nature and prone to fixations on individuals and ideas, Van Gogh’s devotion to work led him to neglect his health. Though he spent on art materials, he ate poorly. The loss of most of his teeth in his early thirties led to gastric trouble. He suffered from insomnia. And he contracted gonorrhoea, and possibly syphilis.
Van Gogh’s poor diet, tiredness and overconsumption of alcohol and caffeine – plus his tendency to overwork – contributed to attacks of mania, which physicians at the time diagnosed as epileptic fugues. In these states, Van Gogh ate paint and attempted to drink turpentine and paraffin. He had seemingly no control over his actions and experienced visual and auditory hallucinations. After these attacks he would be overcome by lassitude, depression, his speech would be jumbled and he would fail to recognise familiar people. Even when not in these post-manic phases, he suffered from extreme nervous tension and paranoia.