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Why did Vincent van Gogh cut his ear on December 23, 1888?

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During his 15-month stay in the city of Arles, in the south of France, an aspiring artist Vincent van Gogh would paint more than two hundred paintings that captured the people and places he encountered. But during his time here, he would also suffer a cataclysmic breakdown, culminating in an act of bloody self-mutilation. What led to the tragic downfall of this tortured genius? Did he cut off his whole ear? Or, as some believe, just a small piece of it?

Secrets of the Dead: Van Gogh’s Ear premieres Wednesday, December 14 at 10 p.m. on PBS (check local listings).

TRANSCRIPT

Narrator: In 1888, the sun-drenched region of Provence in the south of France witnessed the arrival of an outsider... a strange Dutchman, aspiring artist Vincent van Gogh.

During his 15-month stay in the city of Arles, Vincent would paint more than 200 paintings that captured the people and places he encountered.

[Foliage rustling in wind] But during his time here, he would also suffer a cataclysmic breakdown, culminating in an act of bloody self-mutilation.

What led to the tragic downfall of this tortured genius?

Did he cut off his whole ear, or, as some believe, just a small piece of it?

Bernadette Murphy moved here from England over 30 years ago.

And the Vincent van Gogh mystery has become a passion that changed her life.

Murphy: Every time I would ever bring friends or family to Arles, the first thing they would always know about Vincent van Gogh was he was the man who cut off his ear, and yet, when you look in art books, they say that he only cut off the lobe.

Narrator: In fact, it seemed no one could agree on what exactly happened.

[Thunder] On the night of December 23rd, while most of Arles was celebrating Christmas... a horrific incident occurred in a northern district of the city.

[Bleats] Vincent took a razor to his ear and sliced it off.

He then wrapped the bloody ear in a cloth, left his house on Place Lamartine, and went to the Rue du Bout d'Arles in the heart of the red-light district.

Knocking on the door of a brothel, Vincent then asked for a girl and handed her the bloody package.

She fainted at the sight of it, while Vincent disappeared into the night and then returned home, to be found slumped in a sea of blood the next morning.

But while all the newspaper reports agreed on the big picture-- that a man had cut off his ear before turning up at a brothel and handing it to a prostitute-- they disagreed on the details.

Some reports even labeled Vincent, a Dutch man, as Polish.

Bernadette was intrigued.

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