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Old 20th March 2023, 05:08 PM   #1
Jim McDougall
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Default VAN GOGHS EAR

In 2019, Fernando posted a thread on a Lefaucheaux 7mm pinfire revolver which was a relic found in a field in Arles, France and sold at auction as the gun with which Vincent Van Gogh allegedly committed suicide in 1890.
Naturally there was great consternation over its authenticity, just as the actual circumstances of this event has ever been contested and debated.

It seems that Vincent not only left that conundrum, and of course his art, but another mystery involving the most famous drama in art history, his dramatically excised ear. The dramatic story of the psychologically tortured struggling artist, in a fit of desperation, sliced off his own ear, was likely one of the key factors that helped propel him into art fame and legend.

However, in 2009 a new theory arose toward this mutilation which has become controversial, as new theories typically are. That the actual severing of the ear was done by Van Gogh's troublesome room mate, the artist Paul Gaugin.

German scholars Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans, in their 2009 book, "Van Goghs Ear: Paul Gaugin and the Pact of Silence".
In this, they propose, based on compelling evidence and remarkable historic forensics, that in the heated argument of the night of Dec. 23,1888 in the famed 'yellow house', Gaugin grabbed a bag and stormed off into the night.
As Arles in these areas, near the bordellos (frequented by him) it was a seamy place, and he took his trusted epee with him for defense.

The enraged Van Gogh soon followed, but wielding a straight razor, and allegedly moved toward Gaugin in a threatening manner. Instinctively Gaugin made several quick fencing moves, and in this blur, Van Gogh lost his left ear (or it seems most of it). They were both of course stunned, and probably the anger became shock. They both agreed tacitly that this action would not be brought up by either to avoid criminal prosecution and humiliation, thus 'a pact of silence'.

Why this is interesting from an arms perspective, much as the case of the pistol allegedly used in the later suicide, is how weapons themselves become key icons in historic events.

While the possibility and/or probability of this severing of an ear by the sword is as noted, contested, it must be noted that Paul Gaugin was not an amatuer fencer, but quite accomplished. He had trained under several noted French masters, and attended a military academy for fencing. He had even been involved in at least two duel challenges, though not carried out. He had even written on fencing and taught for a time.

Some of the accounts found regarding this event use the term 'foil' toward the sword Gaugin carried that night, obviously a misnomer, and what he had was an epee.
Gaugin had written regarding situations with the sword,
"...if you have before you someone who has never fenced, take care, he is dangerous. He uses a sword simply as he does a stick, slashing up and down. Do not hesitate, make the counterpoint, and a blow on the head or face will properly settle him for you".

Here we see that Gaugin, who had actually feared for his safety with the often irrational Van Gogh, and now faced with a razor by an enraged 'madman', acted in accord with his training. Surely he did not mean for such an injury with the threatening moulinets or slashes with his epee, but in the heat of the moment at night, the unthinkable happened.

In accounts of the wounded ear by the doctor (though years later) and others, it was said that the ear was cut, almost surgically, in a sort of diagonal fashion. It would seem this would correspond with the kind of downward slash of an epee, and in the manner described toward the training Gaugin had written about.

It is well known that Van Gogh suffered from various issues, the most notable was what was then regarded as epilepsy (now seen as likely Menieres, which has tinnitus, ringing in the ears one symptom). It seems that an argument toward self mutilation might attack the offending ear, however the medical association views are this is unlikely, and self mutilation characteristics do not align with this event.

In the famed painting posted, it seems the right ear is bandaged. It is noted that self portraits were of course in reverse as they are in accord with the mirror., it was his LEFT ear severed.

The book "Van Goghs Ear", by Bernadette Murphy, 2016, presents great insight into this dilemma.
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Old 20th March 2023, 07:50 PM   #2
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Duelling pes, especially late 19c ones & more modern fencing ones, are thrusting weapons without cutting edges. I suspect'pe'' may have been used in the older sense of just meaning a 'sword' as it is derived from the original Latin 'spatha'. He likely had a more deadly sword with a sharpened edge. Maybe even a short sword/hanger/hunting sword - or even a sword-stick with a sharp blade.

(I was '1st pe' on my college fencing team. Our coach was a crusty, skinny 90-year-old 5 Ft. 2 in. ex-Hungarian cavalry officer from WW1, he was late for practice one evening - we found out he'd been attacked by a couple of muggers in the Bronx that delayed him. He put both of them in the hospital. I presume with his walking stick/cane. He also was an Olympic coach at NYU.) (No, it wasn't a sword-stick)



Considering his tempestuous relationship with Gauguin, the tale is likely more believable than the cover-up that he did it himself.
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Old 20th March 2023, 10:48 PM   #3
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Thanks Wayne! Words for swords are pretty carelessly tossed around, especially with the uninitiated in their accounts. The word rapier was used in one, and as we know there are transitional rapiers, small swords, and character as well as description are vague. In various books on dueling I have seen, there are seemingly variations with the swords used, and clearly the wounds caused by 'dueling swords', not sabers and not rapiers, were result of powerful slashes.

Gaugin had a rather 'rugged' past, and a tough guy attitude. He had been in the military and was a bit of an adventurer before going into his 'boring' stock broker situation, then art. The Hungarians are probably the most bad ass swordmen, and their reputation is renowned.

The self mutilation thing in my view well served the art historians in championing the troubled and psychologically distraught Van Gogh's legacy. It seems that the sword slash version was pretty much set aside, as planned in the pact between Van Gogh and Gaugin. The accounts even by doctors of the time supporting the self mutilation do not seem supporting by modern medical researchers.

It does seem that with Gaugin's fencing background, the sword was an epee rather than hanger etc. and a letter to Van Gogh later asked for him to send the 'rest' of his fencing gear....the face masks and gloves.....the sword (epee) was not left with them.

I am hoping that perhaps readers might add images of dueling epees of France and Germany (there seem to be many Solingen types) here, and perhaps may have also have other info on this aspect of the Van Gogh mysteries.
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Old 21st March 2023, 11:57 AM   #4
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Jim McDougall View Post
... However, in 2009 a new theory arose toward this mutilation which has become controversial, as new theories typically are. That the actual severing of the ear was done by Van Gogh's troublesome room mate, the artist Paul Gaugin.

German scholars Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans, in their 2009 book, "Van Goghs Ear: Paul Gaugin and the Pact of Silence".
In this, they propose, based on compelling evidence and remarkable historic forensics, that in the heated argument of the night of Dec. 23,1888 in the famed 'yellow house', Gaugin grabbed a bag and stormed off into the night.
As Arles in these areas, near the bordellos (frequented by him) it was a seamy place, and he took his trusted epee with him for defense.

The enraged Van Gogh soon followed, but wielding a straight razor, and allegedly moved toward Gaugin in a threatening manner. Instinctively Gaugin made several quick fencing moves, and in this blur, Van Gogh lost his left ear (or it seems most of it)....
On this subject, and if it is not yet written in the present pages, we may add that, while the the curators of the Van Gogh Museum continue to defend the thesis of self-mutilation, not giving much importance to the thesis of the two German historians, Kaufmann argues that, in his letters to his brother Theo, Van Gogh left clues like this: "Fortunately, Gauguin... is not yet armed with machine guns and other dangerous weapons of war."

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Old 21st March 2023, 02:10 PM   #5
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...it must be noted that Paul Gaugin was not an amatuer fencer, but quite accomplished. He had trained under several noted French masters, and attended a military academy for fencing...
He studied fencing with a master named Grisier. In his published journals a long section describes the views and opinions of the artist on fencing. It is an interesting look at fencing of the late nineteenth century. Gauguin gives advice on fencing, accounts of some of his encounters, and is critical of the military fencing academy...
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Old 21st March 2023, 02:37 PM   #6
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Brilliant Fernando! That is a key quote that illustrates the exact demeanor of the situation! Van Gogh viewed Gaugin as a 'mans man', almost a kind of super hero. It was only his 'madness' and detachment from reality in moments that allowed him the 'courage' to challenge him in heated argument.

In the moments of that fateful evening of December 23, 1888, Van Gogh's world was imploding. His brother Theo was getting married, threatening the end of his financial lifeline, and his dream of an artists utopia with Gaugin at the helm was at an impasse with Gaugin in the throes of leaving .

Van Gogh in his impassioned anger storming into the night after Gaugin likely did grab a straight razor and probably did at wield it in approaching him. It would seem that Gaugin responded to the immediate threat instinctively but using fencing moves defensively to deter his opponent.

Why would Gaugin have been carrying an epee with him ? It is said that Arles, at least in the area of the bordello, which seems where he was perhaps headed, was a 'seamy' place, particularly at night. While most likely never having the intention of actually using it, it was certainly the kind of accoutrement that would dissuade any potential threat from bad actors that probably lurked about in the night.

In most reviews of the circumstances of the cut ear, it has been suggested that the cut (the magnitude of the amount of the ear lost has often been disputed) was not easily accomplished by one's self.
It does seem, from illustrations by the doctor attending in the event (even thought years later) that the result was from what appears a downward diagonal cut, which would concur with the errant sweep of a sharp blade.

This would agree with what was likely intended as a 'warning' as noted, by Gaugin, for Van Gogh to 'back off', but the injury resulting was certainly not intended. That both men were stunned in the moment suggests that, and subsequent communication between them seems to tacitly support these versions of the altercation.

Van Gogh's quoted words here are very much in accord with the oblique reference to what had actually happened, in suggesting that Gaugin was far from hesitant in using excessive force.
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Old 21st March 2023, 02:44 PM   #7
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He studied fencing with a master named Grisier. In his published journals a long section describes the views and opinions of the artist on fencing. It is an interesting look at fencing of the late nineteenth century. Gauguin gives advice on fencing, accounts of some of his encounters, and is critical of the military fencing academy...

He actually for a time opened a salle, where he and another fencing colleague did teach.The critique of a well established training facility is certainly not something expected from an amateur. That he was skilled enough to have carried a sword would suggest he certainly have known how to use it, again, hardly in character with an amateur.
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Old 22nd March 2023, 11:58 PM   #8
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As someone who is trained in surgery and a little bit in forensics as far as university goes Id like to throw my hat into the ring and share my thoughts. The following is just meta-medical smalltalk.

Looking at the collegues Rey drawing of Van Goghs "ear-status" one can observe a concavity towards the head. This can most probably be accomplished by pulling the ear to the side and then cutting. A sword-strike with that navigation through tissue and creating such a concavity would not only be fantastical, the blade would be simply stopped by the skull and get stuck. The authors of the book claim on their website it has been a saber by the way.

Im indifferent to the outcome of this research project but I think it wont be possible to back this hypothesis up unless some notebook turns up. The projects website and its data is a little off from scientific standarts. In my opinion, its about selling the promoted book

https://vangoghsear.com/index.html
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Old 23rd March 2023, 05:39 AM   #9
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Well, I guess there's only one way to be sure! Where's my pliers and my favorite cutlass!

What a great subject on both forensics and sword injuries! Having read of both men (genius fellows), I think either could have been possible! Brilliant characters, but very 'on the edge', so to speak. Thanks, Jim. for posting this!
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Old 23rd March 2023, 12:51 PM   #10
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Well, I guess there's only one way to be sure! Where's my pliers and my favorite cutlass!
FOR SCIENCE!
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Old 23rd March 2023, 04:30 PM   #11
Jim McDougall
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Quote:
Originally Posted by awdaniec666 View Post
As someone who is trained in surgery and a little bit in forensics as far as university goes Id like to throw my hat into the ring and share my thoughts. The following is just meta-medical smalltalk.

Looking at the collegues Rey drawing of Van Goghs "ear-status" one can observe a concavity towards the head. This can most probably be accomplished by pulling the ear to the side and then cutting. A sword-strike with that navigation through tissue and creating such a concavity would not only be fantastical, the blade would be simply stopped by the skull and get stuck. The authors of the book claim on their website it has been a saber by the way.

Im indifferent to the outcome of this research project but I think it wont be possible to back this hypothesis up unless some notebook turns up. The projects website and its data is a little off from scientific standarts. In my opinion, its about selling the promoted book

https://vangoghsear.com/index.html

Thank you for this input, and its good to have expert observations from a professional medical standpoint. It is much appreciated, and while I personally do not have academic credentials, I am familiar with research methods. With that noted, I would not be inclined to critique the standards apparent in this or any of the corpus of books that deal with Van Gogh historically. What is important to me is cited references and supported detail.

Clearly this online 'project' is very much in the form of a book review, which inherently is intended to promote a book, much in accord with the reasons books are written. The idea is to present a theory on a topic and researched detail to support it, which it appears these authors have done.

As with most research on these kinds of historical events, the only evidence that can provide necessary detail as required is corroboration of witnesses and records of course. The thing about the diagram drawn by Dr. Rey is that it was drawn in 1930, nearly 42 years after the event, as he was being interviewed by Irving Stone for his well known book on Van Gogh "Lust for Life".

The actual nature of the injury of Van Goghs ear has been a matter of considerable consternation for over a century, and we can presume this illustration by the very doctor who attended to be most reliable. However, my concern is that the intent was to show the character of the injury, in this case the removal of most of the ear.

My question would be, how can a forensic determination of the exact manner of infliction be determined from recollection from such a long time before?
While it seems that the fact that most of the ear was gone is established, the nature of its severence can only be presumed.

Regarding Gaugin and his fencing, thus the sword he may have used. It seems that often writers describing a sword, and not themselves initiated in sword forms, often use descriptive terms rather casually. The use of saber in describing a slashing cut goes to the character of this type of sword.
Gaugin was an experienced fencer (not amateur as some suggest) and in a letter to Van Gogh, asks for his fencing gear, specifically two masks and two pairs of gloves.........no mention of a sword.
Why?
Clearly it was gone, and according to references toward the event of Dec.23,1888, he threw it into the Rhone river afterwards, probably horrified at what had happened.

In looking epee's, it seems these are of notably different character of course than the foil and saber, and were actually intended as dueling swords.
Guagin, by his very character, was inclined to such things, so by knowing more of his training and fencing activity, as well as that he had interacted in challenges, at least two known, it would seem the epee most likely.

Would an epee (rather more like a foil, but with bolder character) be sharp, or only for thrusting? While epees are known to have rebated points for fencing (or using a button type fixture), various descriptions note they are "very sharp though point was blunted". In some accounts, dueling epee's are noted as quite different from the fencing counterparts.

I am interested in the precision cut observation. I would imagine that in a 'Zorro' imagined action , to deliberately cut ones ear, would be as described, would be pretty impossible. However, in swordplay, which Gaugin knew well, an action to ward off an opponent (or attacker as here) often involves a slashing cut either to or near the head.
If Van Gogh was indeed coming at him (or seeming to) with the razor, Gaugin could instinctively have intended such a cut as a deterrent, but in the dynamics of this action, the blow might have made contact.
If Van Gogh turned to the right reacting, the blow might have been glancing at the left side of his head, severing the ear as the cut went downward.

There was a distinct shock to both men instantly, with that diffusing any anger or for that matter, rational thought (though obviously Van Gogh was far from such, he was surely shocked). The fear of prosecution was of course the key matter at hand, clearly Gaugin did not want to be charged nor did Van Gogh want him to be in trouble, thus the beginning of this great mystery.

In references I have seen, including in medical journals cited, cutting off ones ear is completely inconsistent with any sort of self mutilation. Why would Van Gogh do this, even if distraught or other mental distress?
Why the ear? and if so, as suggested with tinnitus or such conditions, why only one?

The book noted is of course but one reference to this infamous event in the history of this artist, however it is most important in that it directly attends to the possibility of Gaugin being the one who cut off Van Goghs ear.
It seems these and other authors such as Bernadette Murphy, "Van Goghs Ear" 2016, have searched thoroughly every possible venue for the kind of material suggested as perhaps holding new information.

While this mystery might of course never be satisfactorily resolved, its importance here historically, is that a 'sword' (of some kind) may well have been used in this most historic event in art history.
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