Vincent van Gogh's ear  

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Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe (1889) by Vincent van Gogh
Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe (1889) by Vincent van Gogh

Last Sunday night at half past eleven a painter named Vincent Vangogh, appeared at the maison de tolérance No 1, asked for a girl called Rachel, and handed her ... his ear with these words:'Keep this object like a treasure.' Then he disappeared. The police, informed of these events, which could only be the work of an unfortunate madman, looked the next morning for this individual, whom they found in bed with scarcely a sign of life.
The poor man was taken to hospital without delay.
--local newspaper report (Hulsker (1980), pp. 380-2)[1]

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The precise chain of events that led to the celebrated incident of Vincent van Gogh slicing off his ear is not known reliably in detail. The only account attesting a supposed earlier razor attack on Paul Gauguin comes from Gauguin himself some fifteen years later and biographers agree this account must be considered unreliable and self-serving. It does seem likely, however, that by 23 December 1888 van Gogh had realized that Gauguin was proposing to leave and that there had been some kind of contretemps between the two. That evening van Gogh severed his left ear (wholly or in part, accounts differ) with a razor, inducing a severe haemorrhage. He bandaged his wound and then wrapped the ear in paper and delivered the package to a brothel frequented by both him and Gauguin before returning home and collapsing. He was found unconscious the next day by the police

The local newspaper reported that van Gogh had given the ear to a prostitute with an instruction to guard it carefully. In Gauguin's later account he implies that in fact van Gogh had left it with the doorman as a memento for Gauguin. Van Gogh himself had no recollection of these events and it is plain that he had suffered an acute psychotic episode. Family letters of the time make it clear that the event had not been unexpected. He had suffered a nervous collapse in Antwerp some three years before and as early as 1880 his father had proposed committing him to an asylum (at Gheel). The hospital diagnosis was "generalized delirium", and within a few days van Gogh was sectioned.

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