Renowned for masterpieces like “The Starry Night” and “Bedroom in Arles,” Vincent van Gogh’s artistic brilliance is often overshadowed by the intriguing mystery of his self-mutilation—a story that many are familiar with, yet few truly understand.
However, scholar William McKinley Runyan, a research psychologist employed by the University of California-Berkeley, delved into this enigma. In 1981, Runyan published a paper listing 13 hypotheses about van Gogh’s injury, some of which are explored in detail here.
The Story of the Ear
Van Gogh cut off his ear in December 1888 after fighting with a friend. He stormed off to his room after the quarrel, took hold of a sharp razor, and cut off his left ear. Some stories say he only removed the lower portion, but Irish art historian Bernadette Murphy’s research reveals that he took off the entire ear, leaving just a sliver of the lobe behind. When he had finished his self-mutilation, the artist bandaged the wound, wrapped the ear in paper, and gave the package to a woman working in a brothel he frequented. He told the woman, a cleaner, to “keep this object carefully.”
Based on his own research into the complicated and often tragic life of Vincent van Gogh, W.M. Runyan developed several hypotheses regarding the artist’s reason for committing such a dangerous act of violence against himself. His list of 13 hypotheses can be divided into two primary categories: a poor response to problems in his personal life and the desire to make a poetic, artistic statement.
A Poor Response to Personal Problems
As is the case with many artists, van Gogh’s personal life was fraught with challenges. His struggles with finances and interpersonal relationships could very well have contributed to his desire to self-harm.
The following are some examples of these struggles, which Runyan hypothesized about in his paper:
His Brother’s Engagement
One theory behind van Gogh’s action is that he was upset about his brother, Theo, getting engaged. Van Gogh depended on Theo significantly for financial support, and it’s possible that he was frustrated with his brother’s decision and concerned about how it might affect him.
No More Holiday Company
Building off the first hypothesis, van Gogh’s distress regarding his brother’s engagement may have also caused him to worry about how he would spend his holidays. Traditionally, he spent time with Theo, but he may have had concerns that those plans would change after his brother made plans to marry a woman.
A Desire for Attention
Initially, this hypothesis might seem a bit callous, but there is some credence to the idea that the artist was desperate for attention and love from sources beyond just his brother. Runyan suggested that van Gogh cut off his ear in an attempt to garner attention from the local Roulin family.
The family’s matriarch had previously modeled for van Gogh, and some believe that he was envious of the love and attention she bestowed upon her children. Additionally, her husband is rumored to have cared for van Gogh on the night of his injury.
A Secret Desire
When van Gogh cut off his ear, he was living and working with another artist, Paul Gauguin. Scholars with a more psychoanalytic perspective have hypothesized that the artist’s self-mutilation was driven by a need to suppress the physical desire he felt for Gauguin.
These scholars propose that the severed ear was intended to be a phallic symbol, indicating a form of self-castration. They support this idea by highlighting the similarity between the Dutch word for ear, “lel,” and the slang word for penis, “lul.”
An Artistic Statement
Instead of, or perhaps in addition to, being driven solely by the challenges in his personal life, it’s possible that van Gogh’s decision to cut off his ear was motivated by a desire to make some form of artistic statement.
Runyan proposed the following hypotheses that align with this potential motivation:
Recreating a Religious Scene
Despite his penchant for alcohol and brothels, van Gogh was deeply religious. His strong beliefs may have driven him to recreate a biblical scene in which Simon Peter cuts off the ear of a servant of the Jewish high priest who had attempted to arrest Jesus Christ.
Reenacting a Bullfight
Another potential reason for van Gogh’s actions may have been a desire to recreate a specific event: a bullfight. The artist is said to have been deeply moved by a bullfight he witnessed in Arles, where he was living at the time of the incident. Because, at the end of a traditional fight, the bull’s ear is given to the victor as a prize, van Gogh may have wanted to do something similar.
Identification with a Social Outcast
Van Gogh harbored significant sympathy for the women who worked in brothels, expressing this sentiment a few months before cutting off his ear with the words, “The whore is like meat in a butcher shop.” Some suggest that his decision to deliver the ear to a woman employed at a brothel, even though she was a cleaner and not a prostitute, was a demonstration of sympathy for and identification with social outcasts.
Van Gogh, the Tortured Artist
Regardless of the motivation behind his severe self-mutilation, it’s evident that van Gogh was a troubled, tortured artist. He was not the first, and certainly not the last. Many artists, spanning painters and musicians to actors and comedians, have grappled with mental health challenges that led them to self-harm and, in some cases, to take their own lives—such as van Gogh did in 1890 by shooting himself in the chest with a revolver.
Historians and scholars suspect that van Gogh suffered from a series of illnesses, including borderline personality disorder. His symptoms may have been exacerbated by alcohol abuse, and some suggest he ingested paint samples, possibly leading to lead poisoning.
While van Gogh lived a troubled life, he also created incredible works of art that continue to be discussed to this day. People may disagree about the motivation behind his actions, but there’s no doubting his artistic genius.