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Thursday, December 23, 2010

Van Gogh's anguish in the artist's own words

On this date in 1888, Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh cut off a portion of his left ear, walked to brothel, and presented it to a prostitute. The following day, he was found at this home in Arles, France and brought to the hospital where he would remain for the next month, receiving treatment for his mental breakdown.

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has made digitized copies of the artist’s letters available online. English translations are provided and the missives are accompanied by comprehensive notes which lend historical and biographical context for the letters.

A series of letters written by Van Gogh to his younger brother Theo in early 1889, in the wake of his self-mutilation, shed some light on his breakdown, his rift with French artist and housemate Paul Gauguin, and his lingering tortuous thoughts.

One in particular is striking as it seems to be written by someone who is barely hanging on yet seeking to convince himself, and others that things will be okay.

Arles, 2 January 1889

My dear Theo,

In order to reassure you completely on my account I’m writing you these few words in the office of Mr. Rey, the house physician, whom you saw yourself. I’ll stay here at the hospital for another few days — then I dare plan to return home very calmly. Now I ask just one thing of you, not to worry, for that would cause me one worry too many.

Now let’s talk about our friend Gauguin, did I terrify him? In short, why doesn’t he give me a sign of life? He must have left with you.

Besides, he needed to see Paris again, and perhaps he’ll feel more at home in Paris than here. Tell Gauguin to write to me, and that I’m still thinking of him.

Good handshake, I’ve read and re-read your letter about the meeting with the Bongers. It’s perfect. As for me, I’m content to remain as I am. Once again, good handshake to you and Gauguin.

Ever yours


There is some dispute as to just how Van Gogh’s ear was severed. In recent years, some art historians have argued that the injury was actually inflicted by Gauguin during an angry confrontation.

However it occurred, Van Gogh saw fit to preserve the image of his injury. The picture at left is of Van Gogh’s “Self-Portrait with Cut Ear” and comes from the Van Gogh Museum.

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