During his stay at the Yellow House, which had been set up as a studio in the south, Van Gogh experienced a period of feverish intensity and produced a great amount of art, which represented a severe demand on his strength and resources,
His love/hate relationship with Gauguin and repeated threats of Gauguin’s departure caused him dangerous distress: he began to hallucinate and suffered attacks in which he lost consciousness.
The official version of the incident of his severed ear relates that the disturbed Dutch painter had a row with Gauguin one evening shortly before Christmas 1888, about which he could later recall nothing.
Gauguin decided to spend the night at a hotel, while Van Gogh returned home and detached his left ear lobe with a razor blade in a fit of lunacy.
Then he stopped the flow of blood, wrapped the ear in a cloth, put on a Basque beret, walked to a brothel in the red-light district, about 350 metres away, and delivered it to a maid, who fainted when she saw it.
After that, he went home to sleep in a blood-drenched bed, where he was found by the police, alerted by the prostitute, the following morning. He was unconscious and immediately taken to the local hospital, where he asked to see his friend Gauguin when he woke up, but Gauguin refused to see him.
Historians think the maid may have been a girl called Rachel, who had been disfigured by the bite of a dog. Van Gogh may have been thinking to be able to help heal her by giving her a piece of his own flesh. Alternatively, she was named Gabrielle and had been attacked by a rabid dog, which had left her a terrible scar on her arm, and cleaned the brothel to earn money.
Now two German historians claim that Van Gogh lied about cutting off his own ear and Gauguin was actually responsible for the deed. The pair had a heated argument, and Gauguin, a fencer, sliced it off with a sword. Van Gogh, who was obsessed with his friend and didn’t want him to get in trouble for the violent act, made up a story about cutting it off himself. The real version of events has never surfaced because the two men both kept a “pact of silence”
Hans Kaufmann, one of the authors of the book “Pact of Silence” states that “the official version is largely based on Gauguin’s accounts and contains inconsistencies”.
He believes van Gogh was terribly upset over Gauguin’s plan to leave Arles and go back to Paris, and on the evening of December 23, 1888 he went into a rage and became very aggressive. The two men had had a heated argument near the brothel and Vincent may have attacked his friend, who had had no choice but to defend himself. Therefore, he drew his weapon and made a move towards Van Gogh and by that he cut off his left ear (the authors do not know for sure if the blow was an accident or a deliberate attempt to injure the Dutch painter)
After that, Gauguin left Arles and, in order to escape criminal prosecution, invented the story of Van Gogh’s self-mutilation and of his “madness”.
In the first letter that Vincent van Gogh wrote after the incident, he told Gauguin, “I will keep quiet about this and so will you.” That was the beginning of their “pact of silence” .
Van Gogh also mentioned Gauguin in a letter to his brother Theo, in which he hinted at what had happened that night without directly breaking the “pact of silence” – he wrote that “it is lucky Gauguin does not have a machine gun or other firearms,” and that his friend had strong “passions.”