One of the first “facts” we learn about art history is that Vincent van Gogh chopped off his ear in a fit of psychotic passion. Well, it could be time to put that story in the same category as the Tooth Fairy.
Vincent did lose part of his ear, but some historians have discovered he may not have done it to himself. In fact, the new story makes more sense…
Historians revealed their findings over a decade ago, but nobody seems ready to change the tragically romantic narrative, until now...
Something Always Seemed “Off” About the Official Story
Over a decade ago, Vincent’s work inspired me to write a play about him. But I never finished it because the tragic ending just didn't seem right.
Turn outs, it most likely wasn't…
Vincent was thriving in the most prolific period of his artistic life when a bullet hit him in the chest and he died slowly due to lack of antibiotics (story on that forthcoming). But for now, we're focusing on the first myth to dispell about his life: the severed ear.
Has anyone cut off their ear in a fit of passion before? Has anyone done it since (unless copying Vincent)? No, and that’s our first clue…
The Old Myth
Just before Christmas in 1888, Vincent had a fight with his artist friend, Paul Gauguin. Blinded by rage, he took out a razor blade and cut off part of his left ear.
Adding to the drama, there’s a prostitute involved, and the story continues that Vincent wrapped his severed ear in a cloth, headed down to the local brothel to gave it to a prostitute. What better way to impress a woman, right? Actually, no, it just doesn't add up...
Then, it was supposedly the French who picked up this story and ran with it. The world of art history would never be the same.
After more than a century, two German scholars dived into records and sources close to the event, including old police records, Vincent’s letters, and accounts from ancestors of the villagers who were actually there...
The new story relates to Vincent’s selfless nature
Vincent loved his friendship with Paul Gauguin. Paul was a talented and dynamic artist who spent nine months with Vincent as they revolutionized art in the South of France.
Historians Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans place this period of Vincent’s under the power of the modern microscope, and were surprised.
”We carefully re-examined witness accounts and letters written by both artists,” Kaufmann told ABC news. “We came to the conclusion that van Gogh was terribly upset over Gauguin’s plan to go back to Paris, after the two men had spent an unhappy stay together at the ‘Yellow House’ in Arles, Southern France, which had been set up as a studio in the South.”
Just two days before Christmas, Paul announced he was leaving for Paris, which upset Vincent greatly. They got into a heated argument outside a brothel where Vincent perhaps attacked Paul. Paul, known as a skilled fencer, able to wield a blade with both precision and force. The historians believe Paul drew his weapon outside the brothel, and severed a portion of Vincent’s left ear.
The two men made a “pact of silence,” according to historians, because Vincent was endeared to his friend Paul, and didn’t want to see him get into trouble.
Kaufmann said they do accept the possibility it was an accident. “We do not know for sure if the blow was an accident or a deliberate attempt to injure van Gogh, but it was dark and we suspect that Gauguin did not intend to hit his friend.”
Resistance to Changing the Narrative
Not surprisingly, many in the academic community don’t appear ready to change the storyline anytime soon. After all, they’ve been teaching the story their whole lives.
But sometimes that can hinder progress in academia, if they get stuck in a story and don’t want to change it because they might look “off” later. Many have even gone on to great lengths to cast doubt on anything that challenges the status quo, rather than look at all sides with an open mind.
But the arts, unlike academia, can be bold, can change stories and dispell illusions. In the arts, such radical epiphanies are celebrated.
If The Arts Shape Culture, Perhaps People Will Listen to a Drama
What is the one way to change peoples minds? It often isn’t in the history books, as those only record what happened. What often determines the zeitgeist is the arts — books, movies, music, paintings, dance, sculpture, the creative side of architecture.
I’m actually surprised that the recent artistic expressions of Vincent still cling to the old myths.
Historians wrote their book, but nobody seems to care, or maybe it’s just that most people haven’t been aware... After all, shouldn’t we tell the more likely truth about the artist the world has come to adore?
Thus, it seems the best way to change the narrative of an artist is through the arts.
After the pandemic swept the world, I launched back into my play about Vincent that I started years ago. The immersive exhibits selling out all over the globe are a definite sign people want Vincent in their lives during this dark time.
Once I began my work, I discovered these new findings about Vincent's life that were unknown when I first began the play.
I was grateful I hadn't finished the play years ago, because it told the old narrative. Now, the play could reveal a more accurate version of Vincent’s story.
“Starry Night” reveals the new story of Vincent van Gogh
The play, Starry Night, is a “modern dream” revealing the updated story of Vincent — how he changed the art world, then lost his ear, and then his life. But this is a comedy, for it brings us to a point of redemption.
In the quaint beach town on the coast of Lake Michigan, The Starry Nighters will reveal the new tale on a small stage in a gallery, but it will also be streamed online. Maybe the world will listen this time. And perhaps, as if in a dream, Vincent might be watching from behind a swirling star.