New findings on why van Gogh cut off his ear

AMSTERDAM • New evidence has bolstered a theory that Vincent van Gogh's psychotic break on Dec 23, 1888, may have been set off by the news that his brother, Theo, had become engaged to be married.

Author Martin Bailey writes about the findings, based on an examination of family letters, in his new book, Studio Of The South: Van Gogh In Provence.

The artist cut off most of his ear during a psychotic episode about 12 hours after he learnt of the engagement, which is "not something you would do if you welcomed the news, by any means," Bailey said.

In the past, scholars have credited the mental breakdown to a fight van Gogh had that day with painter Paul Gauguin. Bailey believes the engagement news to be a much more significant disturbance than the fight, saying van Gogh's fears of abandonment may have been stirred. "Vincent feared that he would then 'lose' Theo, his closest companion," he wrote. "He was equally worried that his brother might withdraw the financial support which had enabled him to devote his life to art. All this was threatened by the unexpected appearance of a fiancee."

Other van Gogh experts are circumspect about the evidence. Ms Nienke Bakker, a curator of van Gogh paintings at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, said it is impossible to know whether the theory is correct, as the letter that van Gogh received on Dec 23 does not exist anymore.

"It might have contained the news of Theo's engagement, but this cannot be proven," the curator wrote in an e-mail. "It is equally possible that Theo informed Vincent of his marriage plans only when he visited his brother in hospital - thus after the ear incident."

Mr Sjraar van Heugten, a van Gogh expert, said: "It seems fair to me that this may have played a crucial role, but it came on top of the increasingly difficult situation with Gauguin."

Bailey observes that just a half day before van Gogh cut off his ear, he received a letter from Paris that may have contained the news that Theo was engaged to Johanna Bonger, known as Jo. He was able to find evidence that Bonger received a telegram of congratulations on Dec 23 from her older brother Henry - which confirmed that Henry had received the news of the engagement.

Because Vincent and Henry were both older brothers of the betrothed parties and had the same social standing within the family, it would seem customary to inform them both at the same time, Bailey reasons.

Even if van Gogh had heard about the engagement on that day, however, Mr Bakker of the Van Gogh Museum said: "The question would remain as to whether it played any part in his self-injury. It is a matter of speculation that cannot be proved one way or the other."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 03, 2016, with the headline 'New findings on why van Gogh cut off his ear'. Print Edition | Subscribe