Some people reckon Vincent van Gogh was the original king of selfies. In Paris, in 1886 he did around eleven self-portraits, the following year [still in Paris], he churned out another seventeen. In Arles, in 1888 and early 1889, he produced just five, two of them with the famous bandage around his severed left ear.
Over the next year, while in the asylum at Saint-Rémy, his selfie output dropped even further, to just three. This is strange, because if there was a time for introspection, it was during those interminable months alone in the madhouse. But unhappy people, like unhappy artists, tend to be camera shy, not so? In the final two months of Vincent’s life, in Arles, he didn’t paint a single self-portrait either. But what does all this have to do with severed ears?
Given the controversy surrounding “the ear incident”, Van Gogh’s 35-or-so self portraits are a valuable archive. Does he paint the side of his face missing the ear after December 1888? Does he see himself as mad? What is he saying?
When we examine the two self-portraits painted within days of losing his ear, we notice a few things different about them. For one, he’s wearing strange headgear – a blue beret – in both post severed ear selfies. In all his self-portraits, there are about eleven where he depicts himself wearing a hat of some kind, in other words, a hat features in a third of of his self-portraits. The hats are invariably yellow straw hats, used by the artist when he was outdoors as a sun shield.
All the Arles selfies are drawn showing Van Gogh’s left side, while all of those painted afterwards [just three], in Saint-Rémy, are painted from the right.
In The Murder of Vincent van Gogh I go into a lot more detail about the circumstances and psychology of Van Gogh leading to the ear incident at Arles, and the aftermath. I won’t be doing much of that here. What I want to highlight here is one fairly obvious fact, and it has to do with Vincent’s housemate in the Yellow House, for just on two months in Arles – Paul Gauguin.
The whole scenario of the two artists who don’t know each other, suddenly living with one another cheek by jowl in a foreign city, reminds me of Meredith Kercher and Amanda Knox in Perugia. And look how that ended. Kercher was stabbed to death in the throat of her own room, and Knox emerged as a suspect, but ultimately dodged being found guilty of Kercher’s murder.
The time scale is also similiar; just as Kercher had spent several weeks in Perugia settling down and getting orientated before Knox pitched up, Van Gogh did the same in Arles. Then Knox arrived and within about six weeks Kercher was dead, and the entire villa [a bloodbath] had to be abandoned by everyone. The same happened to the Yellow House. The main difference is Knox wasn’t allowed to leave, while Paul Gauguin did, two days after the ear incident.
The mainstream narrative holds that Van Gogh cut off his own ear. There’s been some uncertainty about how much ear – the whole ear [meaning he was very mad], a piece of ear [meaning he wasn’t so mad], or someone else carved off the ear with a rapier [meaning he wasn’t mad at all, just horrible to live with].
The best source for what really happened to Van Gogh’s ear, however, is Van Gogh himself. He does write about it, but once again, I dealt with that in detail in The Murder of Vincent van Gogh, including the latest historical evidence related to the ear narrative.
What I will say is there’s a strange arrangement between Gauguin and Van Gogh after the incident, where both artists sort of agree not to talk about it [Gauguin doesn’t honor the agreement and goes behind Van Gogh’s back, telling everyone who will listen what a lunatic his former housemate is…]
There’s also the issue where Gauguin exits the Yellow House and bugs out to Paris taking two of Van Gogh’s most prized paintings – his depictions of sunflowers. [One would later be auctioned for tens of millions of dollars, a new world record in its time, eclipsing the previous record by a factor of 4]. Van Gogh was clearly pissed off by this, which is why he wrote to Gauguin asking for them back, and bitching to Theo about the whole deal. So there’s lots of intrigue, but for the purposes of this post, I want to focus on those self-portraits painted just after the ear incident. It couldn’t have been fun; it was mid-winter and the wound under those bandages was probably still throbbing and oozing blood. An artery had been severed near the top of the pinna, which almost caused the artist to bleed to death.
It all seems to be in the eyes, doesn’t it? In the left image, notice how the horizon between red and orange actually directs the viewer to the line of Van Gogh’s eyes, as does the smoke from his pipe. The smoke over the crimson background also seems to be suggesting “things aren’t always what they seem.”
But look closer at the other portrait, and there’s a suggestion in the Japanense picture at the rear, that she is pointing towards the eyes.
At this scale it’s clear it’s not the hand or fingers of the Japanese lady at all, but the open beak of bird, perhaps a stalk, crying out in the direction of Van Gogh’s blazing green eyeball. And that’s the other thing – the green.
Going through Van Gogh’s self-portraits, these two have an abundance of green, don’t they. Van Gogh’s actually clothed in it, even the wall behind him and his face, in the second image, is green.
Could all that green, even the green in the eye of the beholder, have anything to do with that expression: being green with envy? And yes, the English idiom translates to Dutch.*
Remember, these were two artists living side by side and clearly, not getting along. Van Gogh said as much in his letters to Theo, and Gauguin made no bones about it either.
So the two artists didn’t get along because Vincent was mad, or was Gauguin mad [angry] because of…well, envy? I’m not the only one casting these aspersions, though…
What pray tell did Gauguin have to be envious about? Well, Van Gogh’s motivation for one. He felt it was becoming a competition, and certainly outputwise, and on the spectrum of inspiration, Van Gogh was streets ahead. Van Gogh also had a patron, in his brother, who basically paid his brother’s way so he could paint to his heart’s content. Interestingly, Gauguin arrived in Arles as another sponsored artist, sponsored by Theo, but falling short perhaps in their eyes, and who knows, perhaps his own too.
Much of this has a mirror dimension in the Meredith Kercher/Amanda Knox case. There has been speculation that Knox was jealous of Kercher, who was a more likable and attractive girl, more settled, more socialized, and had the lion’s share of friends and if she wanted, boyfriends. Knox was later the prime suspect in Kercher’s murder, but was at pains to argue that she and Meredith had been friends to the end. Like Gauguin, Knox wasn’t at home but sleeping somewhere else when the incident in question happened, and both were the “last to know” something had happened.
Here’s the mainstream depiction of Van Gogh cutting off his own ear. It’s preceded, of course, with a row with Gauguin. In Gauguin’s version of events Vincent actually approached him with a razor. Gauguin merely turned around, looked at Vincent, prompting Van Gogh to turn tail, run home and cut off his ear. But does that really ring true?
While researching The Murder of Vincent van Gogh it was easy to get caught up and distracted in the various versions of Van Gogh. In the above depiction the filmmakers seem to have forgotten the events took place just before Christmas in 1888; midwinter in Arles, and a miserable period otherwise, when the Mistral blows through the twisting streets like nobody’s business. So there is no way Van Gogh would be walking around without a shirt on.
Over the past 130 years, there have been countless versions of the ear incident; from art historians, biographers and documentary filmmakers to journalists and authors – everyone has a theory. None of these folks are true crime aficionados though, and none of them are approaching these incidents [the gouged ear and the his death] as criminal incidents. Why not? The French police arrived on the scene on both occasions precisely because a man’s blood was spilled. And even in suicide, it’s important to establish a motive for murder; the murder of the self is still murder, there’s still a motive.
Turning to those self-portraits, what does Van Gogh say about the whole deal? What does he say beyond a look in the eye?
Incredibly, earlier that same month, December 1888, the month of the ear incident, Van Gogh painted two chairs; one symbolizing himself, the other symbolizing Gauguin. This is not in dispute. Van Gogh’s chair is modest, simple and plain [like the man], Gauguin’s is sort of lavish, earthy and has an exotic feel about it. Van Gogh’s chair feels like yellow straw, much of it has a golden vibe about it, Gauguin’s chair [and the wall behind it] is a rich green. It’s important to see the original colors of these art works, because after more than a century, the colors have faded, concealing the original intent, the original code, embedded in the paintings.
Now it’s important to note, the chairs were painted in December before the ear incident, and both chairs were emblematic of the artists. Look at how green Gauguin’s chair is. The seat is a puffy cushion in rich green and gold lint. Behind the chair is a forest green wall.
When Van Gogh painted a portrait of Gauguin, he also used green [on his coat, and the wall] to personify Gauguin. He also has Gauguin turned away from him, preoccupied with his own thoughts, his own world…
Now look at the self-portraits after the ear incident. For the first time in any of his portraits, Van Gogh is clothed in a really thick, green coat. Look closer and the green coat has specks of gold in it. Van Gogh may have agreed with Gauguin, in their letters, not to talk of the incident, but the self-portraits, when the emotions were still running high, speak volumes. The injured Van Gogh looks out, but how much of his green eyes are Van Gogh’s eyes, and how much are they a reflected green [off the room, and his coat]. In other words, he’s not only clothed in Gauguin’s envy, but how the world sees him, is through Gauguin’s disparaging [and envious] eyes…
If these contentions are true, if Van Gogh didn’t cut off his own ear, if Gauguin sliced it off with one of his swords, then we have to ask: was Van Gogh as mad as he’s been made out to be? Was he even mad to begin with? And if he wasn’t mad, was he suicidal?
Unfortunately the clip above cuts off before Van Gogh [played by Andy Serkis] refers to being driven to the heights of his art, by his illness. What did he mean by “illness”? Madness, or something else?
The Murder of Vincent van Gogh is available on Amazon and Kindle Unlimited at this link.
*Van Gogh was a bookworm, and wrote to Theo about enjoying Shakespeare. The “green with envy” idiom originates from Shakespeare’s Othello, a work Van Gogh was undoubtedly familiar with.
“Beware, my lord, of jealousy; it is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.”