We Now Know Why Van Gogh Cut Off His Ear

The master painter is famous for it and the debate on how it was lost rages on right into modern times. 
Wednesday 18 November 2020
Historians and art scholars will always dig into the life and times of artist Van Gogh's life and times. Photo: Jack Guez/AFP

It’s the 21st century and scholars are still arguing about the mysterious circumstances that surround the incident of Van Gogh losing his ear on 23 December 1888 in Arles. The theories range from accusations of French painter Paul Gauguin attacking Van Gogh to speculations of mental disorder that resulted in self-mutilation. 

In 2016, 35 doctors, psychiatrists and international art historians gathered for a discussion sponsored by Amsterdam’s Van Gogh’s museum in relation to the Dutch painter’s exhibition, On The Verge Of Insanity. Although they managed to agree that he suffered from a form of psychosis, there was no consensus on a definitive diagnosis. 


German artist Diemut Strebe’s Sugababe is a living replica of Van Gogh’s severed ear. Photo: Diemut Strebe’s


“There have been thousands of medical papers about Van Gogh’s mental condition, but it has proved remarkably difficult to determine the cause of his problems. This latest paper, by some distinguished specialists, is certainly important and based on a serious study of the artist’s symptoms. But it is unlikely to be the last word on this challenging question,” declared Martin Bailey, a Van Gogh specialist, to Artnet News.

Now however, a brand new study might give some insight into the underlying cause of his self-mutilation. They claim that the injury might have followed psychotic disorder fueled by alcohol withdrawal. Researchers from the University Medical Center Groningen, Netherlands, claim that Vincent van Gogh suffered from severe borderline personality disorder. 


The Dutch painter’s story is known worldwide today, but even online there is heavy debate as to the finer details of his life. Photo: Jack Guez/AFP


BPD is, to give a general description, a mental disorder where a person typically has an intense fear of abandonment or instability. But can also have moments of great impulsivity as well as frequent mood swings. 

It is well-known that van Gogh had a disastrous love affair with lady Absinthe, a spirit known to have medicinal but also hallucinogenic properties. If he did indeed have BPD, then it is likely that the symptoms could have been aggravated by acute alcohol addiction. 


Van Gogh struggled with his own mind and fueled his sorrow with alcohol. Photo: AFP


While trying to withdraw from this addiction, the artist who also suffered from malnutrition would have experienced delirium that might have entailed his self-inflicted left ear mutilation. 

“Thereafter, he likely developed two deliriums probably related to alcohol withdrawal, followed by a worsening with severe depressive episodes (of which at least one with psychotic features) from which he did not fully recover, finally leading to his suicide,” wrote the authors of the study published in International Journal of Bipolar Disorders.


The grave of the Dutch painter and his brother are visited by many at the cemetery of Auvers-Sur-Oise. Photo: Stephane de Sakutin/AFP)


Before reaching this diagnosis, the team reviewed 900 handwritten letters sent by the Dutch artist to his relatives, notably his brother Theo. These historic documents allowed them to fill out four questionnaires on personality disorders to better understand Van Gogh’s psychopathology. Not to say that this method of analysis is without its limitations, because interviewing and studying the actual person is always the ideal situation. 

“In these letters, he described what he was experiencing in his life, including his mental problems, although it must also be realized that Van Gogh did not write his letters for his doctors, but for his brother Theo and other relatives, to inform, or to reassure them,” note the authors.


Source: AFP Relax News