Why Did Vincent van Gogh Cut Off His Ear?

While we may never truly know why Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear, various theories have been proposed by psychologists and academics over the years.

Jun 4, 2024By Rosie Lesso, Managing Editor & Curator

vincent van gogh cut off his own ear


It is one of the most infamous moments in the history of art; when the post-impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh sliced off either part, or all, of his ear with a razor blade in a frenzied moment of madness. This feverish act of self-destruction was in many ways a cry for help, at a time when the artist was struggling with severe mental health issues, and historically it has played a significant role in establishing Van Gogh’s legacy as the quintessential tortured artist. We examine the circumstances that led to this violent act of self-mutilation, and the tragic fallout that followed.


Arguments with Gauguin

vincent van gogh the bedroom painting
The Bedroom by Vincent van Gogh, 1888. Source: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam


Vincent van Gogh was staying at the so-called Yellow House at 2 place Lamartine in Arles, France, on December 23rd, 1888, when the incident in question took place. At the time he and his close friend, the painter Paul Gauguin were living and working in close proximity, and things often became heated between the pair during bawdy evenings involving alcohol. Some believe it was following a particularly bad argument with Gauguin that drove Van Gogh to mutilate and remove part of his own ear with a razor blade. It has been proposed by numerous sources that his growing frustrations that the pair could not maintain a harmonious relationship pushed him over the edge. Some have even hypothesized that Van Gogh was sexually attracted to Gauguin, but the lack of mutual attraction meant he had to suppress his feelings, although there is little evidence to back this theory up.


Following the ear cutting incident, Van Gogh then packaged up the piece of ear and gave it to a maid at a nearby brothel, telling the woman to “keep this object carefully.” Some hours later he was found unconscious, and taken to a nearby hospital. While the piece of ear was recovered, it was too late by then to stitch it back on.


A Cry for Help

van gogh self portrait with bandaged ear painting
Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear by Vincent van Gogh, 1889. Source: The Courtauld, London


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Another possible reason for Van Gogh’s deteriorating mental state was his brother Theo’s recent engagement. Theo had just told Van Gogh that he was spending Christmas was his fiancé’s family, rather than with Vincent. Having relied on his brother for both emotional and financial support, he may well have felt some feelings of abandonment, and worried about his place in Theo’s life for the future. In a research paper published in 1981 by University of California-Berkeley psychologist W.M. Runyan calls it, “the perceived loss of a brother’s care.” He suggests Vincent may well have deliberately hurt himself as a cry for help.


Runyan also argues Van Gogh might have been trying to get attention from the local Roulins family, whose close, loving environment may have incited envy in Van Gogh. It is telling that Mrs. Roulins was one of the first to attend to Van Gogh on the same night of his injury. 


A Poetic Statement

Self-portrait with a bandaged ear, Van Gogh 1889, Arles
Self-portrait with a bandaged ear, Van Gogh 1889, Arles


Several academics have examined Van Gogh’s life, and noted how the ear cutting incident chimes with thematic events that Van Gogh was exploring in his life, and art. He had recently completed a painting portraying the Biblical figure of Simon Peter, who had cut off the ear of the servant working for the Jewish high priest, coming to arrest Jesus Christ. Van Gogh had also recently begun attending bull fights – one particular ritual that caught his attention was the presentation of the bull’s ear to the winning matador, which they proudly displayed to the crowd, before giving it to a lady of their choice from the audience. This in itself can be compared with Van Gogh’s own presentation of his ear to a young woman.


A Serious Decline in Mental Health

starry night van gogh
The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh, 1889, one of Van Gogh’s last, and most masterful paintings. Source: MoMA


While all of the theories above are unproven, we do know that the moment when Van Gogh brutalized his own ear marked a downward spiral in his mental health. He painted himself in two self-portraits following the episode, both in 1889 – Self Portrait with a Bandaged Ear, and Self Portrait with a Bandaged Ear and Pipe – which show an injured, and broken-down man. He lived out the last years of his life in several different asylums, where, despite receiving care, went on to take his own life in 1890. Various differing mental health issues have been connected to Van Gogh over the years, ranging from psychosis and bipolar disorder to schizophrenia and even severe alcohol dependence and withdrawal, although none have proved conclusive.


What we do know is, tragically, that Van Gogh saw his mood disturbances as a great hindrance to his creative life, writing in his diary during the last months of his life, “Oh if I could have worked without this accursed disease – what things I might have done.”

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By Rosie LessoManaging Editor & CuratorRosie has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly and Scottish Art News. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can enrich our experience of art.