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Lubin, A.J. (1961). Vincent Van Gogh's Ear. Psychoanal Q., 30:351-384.

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(1961). Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 30:351-384

Vincent Van Gogh's Ear

Albert J. Lubin, M.D.

It was at Christmas time, 1888, in the Provençal town of Arles, that Vincent van Gogh cut off a piece of his own ear and presented it to a prostitute. From this event has arisen the image of van Gogh as 'the lunatic who cut off his ear'. But there is a contrasting image—'the genius who painted magnificent pictures'. These two divergent concepts have lent some strength to the naïve but popular notion that one must be insane to be a great artist.

Some impressions concerning the incident of the ear, gained during a psychoanalytic inquiry into the life and creativity of van Gogh, may cast additional light on its motivation and meaning. Various aspects of his psychic life appear to have converged in this episode, and some of van Gogh's art illustrates underlying conflicts contributing to the mutilation.

An Arles newspaper reported that the mutilation occurred Sunday night, December 23, at half past eleven (11). The artist took the ear to a brothel and presented it to a prostitute named Rachel. Roulin, the postal agent, is said to have returned the bleeding Vincent to his home. Paul Gauguin telegraphed to Vincent's brother, Theo, in Paris. Theo left for Arles immediately and spent the holiday with his brother (17). Gauguin's version of the episode (5), in which he claimed that Vincent first attacked him, has been discredited as an attempt to justify his abrupt departure from Arles. Westerman-Holstijn, who published the first comprehensive psychoanalytic study of van Gogh (19), pointed out that two frustrations contributed to the self-mutilation: the engagement of Theo to Johanna Bonger and the failure of his relationship with Gauguin. This double


From the Department of Psychiatry, Stanford University School of Medicine.

1 Evidence indicates that the lower half of the left ear was excised (3), though Vincent's self-portraits, being mirror images, show the bandage on the right ear.

2 The designations in brackets refer to letters in The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh (16).

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