1. On the evening of 23 December 1888, Van Gogh suffered an acute mental breakdown. As a result he cut off part of his left ear and took it to a prostitute. The police found him at home the following day and had him admitted to hospital. On 24 December Gauguin sent a telegram to Theo, who immediately took the night train to Arles.
Despite Van Gogh’s repeated pleas, Gauguin did not come to visit him in hospital (see letter 736). Jo van Gogh-Bonger wrote in her introduction to the letters that Gauguin travelled back to Paris with Theo, who left Arles on Tuesday, 25 December, as emerges from a letter he wrote to Jo on 28 December (see Brieven 1914, p. liv, and Brief happiness 1999, pp. 70-71). Bernard’s letter of 1 January 1889 to Albert Aurier (quoted below) agrees with this description of events: he reports that Gauguin had arrived in Paris four days earlier, meaning 27 or 28 December.
After his return to Paris, Theo gave an account of his visit in a letter he wrote to Jo on 28 December: ‘I found Vincent in the hospital in Arles. The people around him realized from his agitation that for the past few days he had been showing symptoms of that most dreadful illness, of madness, and an attack of fièvre chaude, when he injured himself with a knife, was the reason he was taken to hospital. Will he remain insane? The doctors think it possible, but daren’t yet say for certain. It should be apparent in a few days’ time when he is rested; then we will see whether he is lucid again. He seemed to be all right for a few minutes when I was with him, but lapsed shortly afterwards into his brooding about philosophy and theology. It was terribly sad being there, because from time to time all his grief would well up inside and he would try to weep, but couldn’t. Poor fighter and poor, poor sufferer. Nothing can be done to relieve his anguish now, but it is deep and hard for him to bear. Had he just once found someone to whom he could pour his heart out, it might never have come to this. In the next few days they will decide whether he is to be transferred to a special institution and as I don’t yet know how much I shall have to do in all this, I dare not make any plans.’
Two days later he wrote to her again: ‘Since I last wrote I’ve been wavering between hope and fear. The news is still bad and the last letter from Vincent’s friend the postman says, “The doctor will wait a few days before deciding whether he should be committed to an institution.” One sees the ambiguity in this sentence when one asks Why? I am waiting for an answer from the assistant house physician at the hospital. There is little hope, but he has done more than so many in his life and suffered and fought more than most people are capable of doing. If he must pass away, so be it, but the thought of it breaks my heart ... My dear Mother knows no more than that he is ill and that his mind is confused. She is not aware that his life is in danger’ (see FR b2020 and b2021; Brief happiness 1999, pp. 70, 74).
Vincent remained until 7 January 1889 in hospital, where he was treated by assistant house physician Félix Rey. Rey assisted the chief physician, Marie Jules Joseph Urpar. The hospital archives contain a copy of the letter sent to the mayor of Arles, dated 29 December 1889: ‘Mr Mayor, I have the honour of enclosing to you herewith the certificate of Dr. Urpar, the hospital’s chief medical officer, noting that Mr Vincent who, on the 23rd of this month, removed his ear using a razor, is suffering from mental disturbance. The treatment that this unfortunate man is receiving in our establishment not being such as to bring him back to a state of reason, I am writing to request that you be so kind as to take the necessary steps to have him admitted to a special asylum’ (M. le Maire, J’ai l’honneur de vous adresser ci-joint le certificat de M. le docteur Urpar, médecin en chef de l’hôpital, constatant que le Sieur Vincent qui, le 23 du mois ci, s’est enlevé l’oreille d’un coup de rasoir, est atteint d’aliénation mentale. Les soins que cet infortuné reçoit dans notre établissement n’étant pas de nature à le ramener à la raison, je viens vous prier de vouloir bien prendre les mesures nécessaires pour le faire admettre dans un asile spécial) (ACA). The copy is not signed. The same day Dr Rey informed Theo of Vincent’s condition and told him about Urpar’s certificate (see Documentation, 8 May 1889).
The incident was reported in the column ‘Chronique locale’ in Le Forum Républicain on Sunday, 30 December 1888: ‘Last Sunday, at half past eleven in the evening, one Vincent van Gogh, a painter, a native of Holland, presented himself at brothel no 1, asked for one Rachel, and handed her.... his ear, telling her: “Keep this object carefully.” Then he disappeared. Informed of this act, which could only be that of a poor lunatic, the police went on the following day to the home of this individual, whom they found lying in his bed, by then showing hardly any sign of life. The unfortunate was admitted to the hospital as a matter of urgency.’ (Dimanche dernier, à 11 heures ½ du soir, le nommé Vincent Vangogh peintre, originaire de Hollande, s’est présenté à la maison de tolérance no 1, a demandé la nommé Rachel, et lui a remis.... son oreille en lui disant: “Gardez cet objet précieusement.” Puis il a disparu. Informée de ce fait qui ne pouvait être que celui d’un pauvre aliéné, la police s’est rendue le lendemain matin chez cet individu qu’elle a trouvé couché dans son lit, ne donnant presque plus signe de vie. Ce malheureux a été admis d’urgence à l’hospice.) As late as 1929, the policeman Alphonse Robert described his recollection of the incident (quoted in Doiteau and Leroy 1939, p. 6).
The exact circumstances of the supposed incident between Gauguin and Van Gogh are not known, however. Van Gogh says nothing in his letters about its immediate cause, and Rey reported the following to Theo on 30 December: ‘When I tried to get him to talk about the motive that drove him to cut off his ear, he replied that it was a purely personal matter’ (Lorsque j’ai voulu le faire causer sur le motif qui l’avait poussé à se couper l’oreille; il m’a répondu que c’etait un affaire tout à fait personnelle) (FR b1056; Documentation, 30 December 1888). Van Gogh remembered little of what happened. This is evident from a note made by Dr Peyron in the asylum at Saint-Rémy on 8 May 1889: ‘During that attack he cut off his left ear, but he has no more than a vague memory of all that, and is not aware of it.’ (Pendant cet accès il se coupa l’oreille gauche mais il ne conserve de tout cela qu’un souvenir très vague, et ne peut s’en rendre compte.) See Documentation, 8 May 1889.
Gauguin is the source of various versions of the story that came into circulation. In Avant et après he wrote that, before finally wounding himself, Van Gogh had wanted to attack him that evening: ‘I had already gone almost all the way across place Victor-Hugo, when I heard behind me a little step that was very familiar, quick and jerky. I turned at the very moment when Vincent rushed at me with an open razor in his hand. My look must at that moment have been very powerful, because he stopped, and lowering his head he ran back in the direction of the house.’ (J’avais déjà traversé presque entièrement la place Victor-Hugo, lorsque j’entendis derrière moi un petit pas bien connu, rapide et saccadé. Je me retournai au moment même où Vincent se précipitait sur moi un rasoir ouvert à la main. Mon regard dut à ce moment être bien puissant car il s’arrêta et baissant la tête il reprit en courant le chemin de la maison.) See Gauguin 1923, pp. 20-21.
This account is not very reliable, not only because Gauguin wrote it 15 years after the fact but also because the story he told Bernard immediately after his return to Paris paints a completely different picture. Bernard summarised it in a letter written on 1 January 1889 to Albert Aurier: ‘Gauguin returning precipitately, 4 days ago, and the news about Vincent in the hospital. I rushed to see Gauguin, who told me this. On the eve of my departure (because he was about to leave Arles) Vincent ran after me (he went out, it was at night). I turned round, because for some time he had become very strange, but I mistrusted him. Then he said: You are silent, but I shall be so too. Ever since I had been going to leave Arles he was so odd, I couldn’t live any longer. He had even said to me: “Are you going to leave?” And since I had said “Yes” he tore this sentence out of a newspaper and put it into my hand: “the murderer fled”. I went to sleep at the hotel, and when I returned the whole of Arles was outside our house. Then the gendarmes arrested me, because the house was covered in blood. This is what had happened. Vincent had returned after I left, taken his razor and clean sliced his ear. Then he had covered his head with a tall beret and had gone to a brothel to bring his ear to an unfortunate creature, saying to her: You’ll remember me, I’m telling you truly. This young woman fainted on the spot. The gendarmes set out, and they all came to the house. Vincent was put in the hospital. His condition is worse, he wants to sleep with the patients, chases after the Sister and washes himself in the coal bunker. In other words, he is performing biblical mortifications. They were compelled to put him in a private room.’ (Gauguin revenant précipitamment, il y a 4 jours, et la nouvelle de Vincent à l’hôpital. J’ai couru voir Gauguin qui m’a dit ceci. La veille de mon départ (car il devait quitter Arles) Vincent a couru après moi (il sortait c’était la nuit) je me suis retourné car depuis quelques temps il devenait très drôle, mais je m’en défiais. Alors il m’a dit: Vous êtes taciturne, mais moi je le serai aussi. Depuis que je devais quitter Arles il était tellement bizarre que je ne vivais plus. Il m’avait même dit: “Vous allez partir?” Et comme j’avais dit “Oui” il a arraché d’un journal cette phrase et me l’a mise dans la main: “le meurtrier a pris la fuite”. Je suis allé coucher à l’hôtel et quand je suis revenu tout Arles était devant chez nous. Alors les gendarmes m’ont arrêté, car la maison était pleine de sang. Voici ce qui s’était passé. Vincent était rentré après mon départ, avait pris le rasoir et s’était tranché net l’oreille. Alors il s’était couvert la tête d’un berret profond et était allé dans une maison publique porter à une malheureuse son oreille en lui disant: Tu te souviendras de moi, en vérité je te le dis. Cette fille s’est évanouie immédiatement. Les gendarmes se sont mis sur pied et on est venu au logis. Vincent a été mis à l’hôpital. Son état est pis, il veut coucher avec les malades, chasse la soeur et se lave dans la boîte à charbon. C’est à dire qu’il continue les macérations bibliques. On a été forcé de l’enfermer dans une chambre.) See Jacqueline Albert Simon and Lucy D. Rosenfeld, A century of artists’ letters. Notes to family, friends, and dealers. Delacroix to Léger. From the Pierre F. Simon Collection at the New York Public Library. Atglen (PA) 2004, pp. 64-70. Cf. also exhib. cat. Chicago 2001, p. 260.
According to Le Forum Républicain, the policeman Robert, Dr Rey and Gauguin, Van Gogh cut off his whole ear, but Jo van Gogh-Bonger, Paul Gachet and Paul Signac stated that it was only the lower part. For the various testimonies, see also Doiteau and Leroy 1939.
On 4 January Theo wrote the following to Jo Bonger about the present letter: ‘A good letter from Vincent today, he appears to have recovered, isn’t that wonderful? There is no longer any question of committing him to an asylum and even the doctors have abandoned the idea.’ See FR b2023; Brief happiness 1999, p. 83. Dokter Rey, Roulin and the Rev. Frédéric Salles kept Theo informed about Vincent’s recovery. The letters from Roulin and Salles are published in Hulsker 1970. For Rey’s letter, see Documentation, 12 February 1889.