Was truth the biggest casualty in the case of Vincent and his severed ear?

It wasn't self-mutilation – and Gauguin was to blame, say German art historians

The history of art, and the history of ears, may never be the same again. According to a new book, the painter Vincent van Gogh did not slice off his left ear in a fit of madness and drunkenness in Arles in December 1888. His ear was severed by a sword wielded by his friend, the painter, Paul Gauguin, in a drunken row over a woman called Rachel and the true nature of art.

Gauguin lied about the incident and fled, two German art historians now believe. Van Gogh covered up to protect his friend and was placed in a mental institution. He committed suicide seven months later.

If confirmed, the new theory – based on a re-reading of police reports and witness statements – could explode the standard image of Van Gogh as an unstable man, teetering on the frontier of madness and genius. In the revised version of events in Arles on Christmas Eve 1888, Vincent emerges as a mentally fragile, quarrelsome drunk but also as a loyal friend, who took Gauguin's secret to his grave.

Other Van Gogh scholars are intrigued but not convinced. Researchers at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam prefer to stick to the familiar story: Vincent severed the lower part of his own ear, wrapped it in newspaper and asked a prostitute called Rachel to "keep this object carefully".

The accusation that it was Paul Gauguin who committed grievous bodily harm on his friend is published by Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans of Hamburg University in a 392-page book, Van Goghs Ohr, Paul Gauguin und der Pakt des Schweigens (Van Gogh's Ear, Paul Gauguin and the Pact of Silence.)

The authors have re-examined contemporary police reports and surviving, second-hand accounts of witness statements, including contradictory declarations by Gauguin. They admit that final proof is lacking, and that the police investigation into a drunken brawl between two artists was half-hearted at best. Nonetheless, they say that all the evidence points to the fact that Gauguin accidentally sliced off his friend's ear.

The two men were arguing in the street, the authors believe, partly about their competing interest in Rachel but also about the correct way to paint. Van Gogh argued for painting from the life; Gauguin from the imagination. The French painter was threatening to leave for good, wrecking Van Gogh's dream of founding a utopian artists' colony in Arles. Gauguin, a keen amateur fencer, walked into the street with his luggage and his sword, the authors believe. Van Gogh pursued him. Gauguin brandished the sword in his friend's face to keep him at bay and accidentally cut off part of his ear. Van Gogh then staggered to Rachel's house and handed her the severed part.

The next day both men gave statements to the police. Gauguin accused Van Gogh of self-harm and said that he had seen him stumbling through the streets with a razor in his hand. Van Gogh mumbled incoherently, accusing neither Gauguin nor himself.

After examining the evidence, Kaufman and Wildegans say that Gauguin contradicted himself several times and claimed to have seen events he could not have seen. Other witnesses suggest that Van Gogh provoked Gauguin and Gauguin attacked Van Gogh.

The two men never met again. Gauguin returned to Paris and then emigrated to the French Pacific island of Tahiti. Van Gogh was placed in a mental institution and then moved to the village of Auvers-sur-Oise, near Paris. After an extraordinary final burst of creativity, in which he painted 70 paintings in 70 days, he shot himself on 27 July 1889 and and died two days later, aged 37.

Why should Van Gogh have covered up for Gauguin? "He hoped that by doing so, he could force Gauguin to resume their life together. He obviously adored him," Kaufmann said.

If the incident had not happened, the German authors argue, Van Gogh might not have been placed in a mental institution. He might not have plunged into a depression, aggravated by poisoning from the lead and arsenic in his paints. He might have gone on to live to a ripe old age, like Claude Monet, and he might have painted many, many more canvases. Nina Zimmer, curator of a large Van Gogh exhibition at the Kunstmuseum in Basle until September, is unconvinced. "Maybe they are right," she said. "But almost any theory is plausible because there are so few established facts."

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...