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What Actually Happened To Van Gogh's Left Ear?

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The idea that Vincent Van Gogh chopped off his own ear may not be true. New research suggests fellow painter Paul Gauguin may have severed it in a sword fight and the two created the story to protect Van Gogh's friend.

Why It's Noteworthy

Anyone who has ever taken an art history class knows that Van Gogh cut off his left ear in a moment of madness. On December 23, 1888, the story goes, Van Gogh got into an argument with his friend and fellow artist, Paul Gauguin. After the argument, Van Gogh suffered hallucinations and took a razor blade to his own ear. He lost consciousness and never could recall what happened. But in recent years, a number of other versions of the incident have popped up.

In "Van Goghs Ohr" ("Van Gogh's Ear"), a German book published in 2008, authors Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans argue that the artist's ear was in fact lopped off by Gauguin, a skilled fencer, after an argument with Van Gogh. As depicted in the book, Gaugin made several quick fencing moves toward Van Gogh, who felt sudden pain in his ear. He grabbed for it, and felt only blood. "He sees something light lying on the ground," the authors write. "In shock, he picks up the cut-off ear, holds it up to Gauguin, who is frozen, and says 'You are silent. Indeed, I will be, too." They fabricated the razor story to cover up Gaugin's crime.

Meanwhile, in the 2016 book "Studio of the South: Van Gogh in Provence," British Van Gogh scholar Martin Bailey claims that Van Gogh sliced off his ear after learning that his brother had gotten engaged. "It was fear that pulled the trigger and led to the breakdown," Bailey told CNN. "Fear of being abandoned in both an emotional and financial way." Van Gogh, Bailey explains, relied on his brother for financial support.

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Why People Should Care

It's hard to know what to believe. Kauffman and Wildegans pored over documents, including original police reports and Van Gogh's own letters, to come up with their version of the events. Bailey looked at correspondence between Van Gogh and his family to reach his own conclusions. And plenty of Van Gogh scholars still stick with the original story. But there is no debate that Van Gogh's chopped-off ear is the biggest mystery to surround the iconic painter—or any artist, really—so it's hard not to get caught up in the theories. "It's the Van Gogh story everyone wants to know about," Bailey said. "There was an enormous public interest, both now and back at the time, when newspapers wrote about the event."

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Key Facts In This Video

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  2. Self-portraits were part and parcel to Van Gogh's work. 00:57

  3. Mental illness plagued his life and is reflected in his art. 01:27

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Key Facts In This Video

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