In the history of art there are few tales more legendary than Vincent Van Gogh cutting off his own ear. It was technically only part of his ear but, these things get exaggerated with time.
Regardless, the incident is way more complicated than an anecdote of tortured artistic genius.
For starters, there’s also the fact that Van Gogh presented the piece of mutilated ear to a prostitute. This is kind of the PG-13 version of the story — generally not included on elementary school field trips to the museum. Though occasionally more worldly curators toss in the term “lady of the night” to keep the jaded 5th graders interested.
The really interesting part is actually the events leading up to the ear loss. It all starts in the ultimate hotbed of sin and degradation: a french bar. And not just any bar, but the particular establishment Van Gogh showcases in The Night Cafe (1888).
Van Gogh suffered from an exhaustive list of mental and physical ailments that would defy treatment even with today’s 21st century medicine. In the 19th century, doctors just recommended going south to better one’s humors. So, Van Gogh decamped from Paris to Arles in southern France. He focused on painting, and invited his close friend and fellow painter Paul Gauguin to join him.
During Gauguin’s visit, the pair frequented same the bar pictured in The Night Cafe. Gauguin actually rendered his own depiction of the locale. Also titled, ingeniously, The Night Cafe (1888).
One evening, after what was probably one too many cups of absinthe, Van Gogh and Gauguin got into an argument. Over what exactly, we can only speculate. However, thanks to detailed police records and the artists’ own written accounts, we do know that Vincent Van Gogh threw a wine glass at Paul Gauguin, and the two got into a straight up brawl.
The traditional story is that Van Gogh was so drunk and disorientated from the fight that afterwards he proceeded to cut off his ear and offer it up to a prostitute. But, some scholars go so far as to claim that it was actually Gauguin that cut off Van Gogh’s ear in this altercation.
Whatever the exact course of events, this story adds a darker edge to the already sinister depiction of the Night Cafe by Van Gogh. There’s a palpable sense of darkness and anxiety in the painting. The billiards table in the center definitely looks like a coffin. The whole piece eerily foreshadows Van Gogh’s mental spiral and eventual suicide only a year and half later.