When we speak about artist Vincent Van Gogh today, we use phrases like “ahead of his time” and “misunderstood genius”.
This is probably true. But it’s also true that, had we lived at the same time as Van Gogh, eccentric probably would have been the kindest description we gave him.
This eccentricity is captured quite accurately in the tale of the time Van Gogh sliced off his ear.
It was 1888 and the Dutchman was living in southern France, and fellow artist Paul Gaugin came to join him for nine weeks.
They painted, and they fought, until it came to a head on December 23.
After a particularly burly blue, history says, Gaugin left the house in a rage and Van Gogh found a razor and, instead of using it to maim his mate, cut off his left ear.
He wrapped it up in paper and took it to a sex worker at one of his favourite brothels.
The next day he woke up with zero recollection of the whole event, and was taken to hospital, where he was diagnosed with “acute mania with generalised delirium”.
He was in and out of hospital over the next few months (not before painting a self-portrait of himself with a bandaged ear) and ultimately checked himself in an asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, where he painted The Starry Night.
Gaugin, however, packed his bags after the ear incident and left.
A few years ago, author Martin Bailey, in his book Studio of the South, posed an alternative theory for the impetus for the self-mutilation.
He theorises that news reached Van Gogh on the morning of December 23 that his brother Theo had become engaged.
Normally a cause for celebration, Van Gogh took the news badly, Bailey says, because Theo was his main source of financial and moral support, and the impending possible disruption to that sent him into a state of intense distress.
There’s also the theory that Gaugin did it, with a sword, but this theory has been pretty dashed with experts pointing out the cut was too precise to have been done with the comparatively clumsy blade of a sword.
Van Gogh is remembered as one of the greatest post-impressionist artists in history.
He made some 2000-odd paintings and drawings during his lifetime – but only made one sale while he was alive.
He took his own life at the age of 37, in 1890.
Since his death, his popularity as an artist exploded, edged along by the “tortured artist” narrative.
His artworks are among the most expensive in the world.
Irises sold in 1987 for $US53.6 million, and his most recent sale (L’Allée des Alyscamps in 2015) fetched $66.3 million.
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