A few years ago at Hearing International we reviewed the case of van Gogh’s missing pinna. At the time, we made the case that Van Gogh’s mental state was really caused by bouts with Meniere’s Disease and that he did not really cut off his own ear. After an argument it was cut off by his lover, Paul Gaugin who was visiting him at his home in Arles, France. Paul Gaugin came to Arles and began living with Van Gogh in October, 1888 and the “incident” happened on December 23, 1888.
According to the van Gogh Gallery (2016) , hewas born in 1853 and grew up in a religious family in Holland. After schooling he followed his uncle’s profession and became an art dealer in Holland, England and France but later became disinterested in art dealing. Since his father was a minister, he returned home to Holland and studied Theology. While van Gogh did not feel that Latin was the language that would be useful in preaching to the poor he was passionate and enthusiastic about his studies. He was very intelligent and able to speak several languages. In his early 20’s he became a missionary in a coal mining community living with hard working poor and common people. His development in Theology stalled after applying to a couple of programs and failing the entrance examinations, which spurred his interest in art. At age 27, in 1880, he entered Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, Belgium and the following winter fell in love, had his heart broken and began his painting career. The next few years would be more of the same in the love arena, but after a few years his paintings became more popular. His change from the dark colors, and drabness of painting peasants to the more impressionist style using color applying the paint with thick, bold brushstrokes and painted all that he could see around him. While in Paris, he had positive reviews to the showing of his work, but he still was unable to sell enough pieces to support himself.
The Time in Arles
Van Gogh’s most famous period of painting was when he moved to Arles, France. Vincent had visions of beginning a school of art and developing a colony of artists in the French coastal town. He had hoped that his friends Camille Pissaro, Claude Monet, and Paul Gaugin would take part in this enterprise but only Gaugin was to become part of the project. While this was the period of great production for van Gogh, he suffered from some very controversial diseases. Of course, this behavior was consistent with a 19th century diagnosis of epilepsy and madness, which has been part of popular folklore ever since. Van Gogh’s own diagnosis of epilepsy was made from the written diagnosis by Dr. Peyron, the physician at the asylum of St Remy (France), wherein on May 9, 1889 Van Gogh voluntarily committed himself to the asylum for epileptics and lunatics. However, the clinical descriptions in his letters are those of a person suffering from Meniere’s disease, not epilepsy. Some say it was epilepsy, others feel that it was bipolarism, lead poisoning from the paint, but that is not the whole story. Arenberg et al (1990) makes a good case for the artist having suffered from Meniere’s Disease. This would explain the various symptoms that were encountered by van Gogh and his trips to the hospital during his time in Arles. Arenberg and colleagues reviewed 796 of the some 800 personal letters to family and friends written between 1884 and 1890 and concluded that they reveal a man constantly in control of his reason and suffering from severe repeated attacks of disabling vertigo, not a seizure disorder. Arenberg et al (1990) points out that Prosper Meniere’s description of his syndrome (an inner-ear disorder) was not well known in van Gogh’s time and was often misdiagnosed as epilepsy well into the 20th century. In van Gogh’s time however, these symptoms would have been perceived as bizarre enough behavior to make one capable of cutting off their own hear. This this might be the story but Sherman (2009) cites evidence that van Gogh made up the story to protect Gaugin, an excellent fencer, who cut off van Gogh’s ear with a sword during a lover’s quarrel. And that is another story…….The Sherman story is presented in detail in the first Hearing International discussion of van Gogh (Traynor, 2011).
Arenberg, I.; Countryman, L. Bernstein, L. & Shambaugh, G. (1990). Van Gogh had Meniere’s Disease not Epilepsy. JAMA, Vol 264, No 4, pp. 491-493. Retrieved July 26, 2016.
Sherman, W. (2009). Historians blame van Gogh’s hearing loss on Gaugin. Animalnewyork.com. Retrieved July 26, 2016.
Siegel, N. (2016) New evidence on van Gogh’s ear continues debate on painter’s mental state. The New York Times. International Art. Retrieved July 26, 2016.
van Gogh Gallery (2015) Vincent van Gogh biography. Retrieved July 26, 2016.
Superbenjamin (2016) France location map-Regions and departements-2015.svg, CC BY-SA 4.0. Retrieved July 26, 2016.