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Van Gogh’s ear

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In February 1888, Vincent van Gogh (1853–90) left Paris for Arles, a small town in the south of France, where he warmed to the open vistas and bright colours of the Provençal countryside. In September he moved into the house he called the ”Yellow House”, where he hoped to establish an artists’ colony – though only Gauguin, who arrived in Arles in late October, stayed for any length of time. Initially the two artists got on well, hunkering down together in the Yellow House and sometimes painting side by side, but the bonhomie didn’t last. They argued long and hard about art, with van Gogh complaining, “Sometimes we come out of our arguments with our heads as exhausted as a used electric battery”. Later, Gauguin claimed that van Gogh threatened him during several of these arguments: whether this is true or not, Gauguin had certainly already decided to return to Paris by the time the two had a ferocious quarrel on the night of December 23. The argument was so bad that Gauguin left to stay at the local hotel, and when he returned in the morning, he was faced by the police. After Gauguin’s hasty exit, a deeply disturbed van Gogh had taken a razor to his ear, severing part of it before presenting the selected slice to a prostitute at the local brothel – in van Gogh’s addled state he may well have forged some sort of connection with bullfighting, where the dead bull’s ears are cut off and given as a prize to the bullfighter. Hours after Gauguin’s return, van Gogh was admitted to hospital, the first of several extended stays before, fearing for his sanity, he committed himself to the asylum of St Rémy in May 1889. Here, the doctor’s initial assessment described him as suffering from “acute mania, with hallucinations of sight and hearing”; van Gogh attributed his parlous state to excessive drinking and smoking, though he gave up neither during his year-long stay.

In May 1890, feeling lonely and homesick, van Gogh discharged himself from St Rémy and headed north to Paris before proceeding on to the village of Auvers-sur-Oise. At first, his health improved and he even began to garner critical recognition for his work. However, his twin ogres of depression and loneliness soon returned to haunt him and, in despair, van Gogh shot himself in the chest. This wasn’t, however, the end; he didn’t manage to kill himself outright, but took 27 hours to die, even enduring a police visit when he refused to answer any questions, pronouncing: “I am free to do what I like with my own body”.

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