Let’s get two things out of the way. Yes, van Gogh cut off his own ear. We all know that. Let’s move on now. Secondly, while you might pronounce it van GOH or vanGOFF or even vanGOGO (although I don’t know why you’d do that), the closest to the actual Dutch pronunciation is apparently van KHOKH, or the anglicized van GOKH. That out of the way, lets move on.
Vincent Willem van Gogh was a Dutch post-impressionist painter in the late 19th century, whose most famous paintings include Starry Night, Starry Night Over the Rhone, and tons of selfies. I mean self-portraits, which is like the 19th century version of a selfie.
The Sad, Gloomy Early Years
Born in 1853, van Gogh was a quiet and thoughtful child who aspired to be a preacher. In one of his famous letters to his younger brother Theo he wrote, “My youth was gloomy and cold and sterile.” Quite the chipper, wasn’t he? Van Gogh started drawing as a child and as a teenager worked at an art dealership in Brixton, England. By the age of 20 he was already making more money than his father, but after his advances were refused by his landlady’s daughter, he left the position and went to Paris, which didn’t suit his artistic sensibilities because of its commercialization.
During this entire phase he was becoming more and more religious, until he flat out decided to be a pastor. Except he got kicked out of the church for living in ‘squalid conditions’ – he basically lived in a shithole. Moral of the story: you could be a liberal arts sophomore or a post-modernist 18th century art wizard – you’re destined to live in shitty conditions.
The Ear Thing
We can’t really avoid it anymore. Why did Vincent van Gogh cut his own ear off? Well, in 1887 van Gogh moved in with another famous painter, Paul Gaugin, into a studio in the southern French city of Arles. Gaugin and van Gogh got along well, painting, eating and drinking together, overall being the Joey and Chandler of south France.
This is also the time van Gogh sold his only painting, The Red Vineyard, to a friend’s sister for 400 Francs. After almost two months of their debauchery (which basically involved getting shitfaced and painting), Gaugin was considering moving out. van Gogh didn’t like that. Not one bit. The rest of the details are a little bit hazy, but apparently van Gogh confronted Gaugin, they got into an argument, and alone in the house, Vincent van Gogh cut off his left ear with a razor. Then he wrapped the ear in a newspaper, took it to a brothel, and gave it to a girl named Rachel, telling her to “Guard this object carefully.” Oh these charming artists.
Oh and Gaugin did leave. So there’s that. Now some people say that Gaugin might’ve been the one who attacked van Gogh and cut his ear off, but then we don’t know. We do know that van Gogh was prone to nervoius collapses and psychotic episodes. So…yeah.
The Art of Vincent van Gogh
In between all the ear-slicing and overall misery of his existence, van Gogh found the time to paint over 900 beautiful paintings and 1100 drawings and sketches. That’s amazingly prolific for someone who died at the age of 37 (spoiler alert). Apparently in the days before his death, he averaged about one painting per day. Per day.
The first known work by van Gogh is called, no joke, Still Life with Cabbage and Clogs, which is currently housed in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam along with most of his other works. One major element of his art has been considered to be the detail of his drawings, which allowed him to focus on the contrast between light and dark. Just memorize that sentence and you can be all fancy at art shows.
One of his most well-known works is Starry Night. You’ve seen it. It’s this one.
Painted with oil on canvas in 1889, Starry Night depicts the view just before sunrise from van Gogh’s asylum room at Saint Rémy-de-Provence, where van Gogh admitted himself right after the whole ear-slicing thing. It’s in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Go see it.
We can’t refute the fact that van Gogh painted lots of self-portraits. While van Gogh initially used models to pose for his paintings, he later decided that the expenditure wasn’t worth it, and moved to self-portraits, painting over 30 of them. This one is called Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear. The reasoning is self-explanatory.
The Death of An Artist
On July 29, 1890, van Gogh shot himself in the chest. Theo, his brother and the only person really close to him, took care of him, but two days later he died. Theo van Gogh, unable to bear the pain, died six months later, being buried next to his brother. Theo, at Vincent’s side when he died, said that his last words were “La tristesse durera toujours” which means “the sadness will last forever”.