XII. Are there any hints by Van Gogh about Gauguin's part in the incident?


Yes, there are indeed many hints. Van Gogh did not keep completely quiet.
When he realised that Gauguin had betrayed him and would not come back, he gave his brother several indirect but clear hints in order to make him understand how things really stood:

On January 17th 1889, 26 days after the incident, Van Gogh wrote a long letter to his brother, analysing his present situation and trying to draw Theo's attention to Gauguin's entanglement in the ear-cutting affair, without breaking his promise to keep silent over it.31

Firstly, Vincent complained about Gauguin's sudden "vanishing" from Arles and his refusal to come to his sickbed at the hospital:
"How can Gauguin claim to have feared disturbing me by his presence when he would have difficulty denying that he knew I asked for him continually, and people told him time and again that I was insisting on seeing him that very moment? Precisely to tell him to keep it between himself and me".32

In this passage, Vincent indicates three important issues:

  1. He was quite aware of the situation when he woke up at the hospital on December 24th.
  2. He wanted to talk to Gauguin immediately and did not accept his refusal to come (thus rendering Gauguin's excuses obsolete).
  3. He wanted to urge Gauguin "to keep it between himself and me", which necessarily raises the question of what exactly had happened that should be kept secret.

More significantly, in another passage of his letter, he refers to Gauguin's dangerous armament and to his fierce character:
"Happily Gauguin, I and other painters aren't yet armed with machine guns and other very harmful engines of war. I, for one, am quite determined to try to remain armed only with my brush and my pen. With loud shouts Gauguin nevertheless demanded from me in his last letter „His fencing mask and gloves“ (emphasis by van Gogh) hidden in the little room of my little yellow house. I'll make haste to send him these childish things by parcel post. Hoping that he'll never use more serious things (emphasis by us). He's physically stronger than we are, so his passions must also be much stronger than ours".33

Gauguin had indeed asked him in his first letter from Paris to send him by parcel post his fencing masks and gloves, which he had left in the Yellow House.
"at the next opportunity if you can send me by parcel post my 2 fencing masks and gloves, which I left on the shelf in the little upstairs room."34

And some days later:
"Don't bother yourself with the studies that I deliberately left in Arles as not being worth the trouble of transporting them. On the other hand the sketchbooks contain notes which are useful to me, and I accept your offer to send them to me. As well as the 2 masks and gloves."35

This means that Gauguin had left in the Yellow House not only his keys, but also his studies, his sketchbooks, and parts of his fencing equipment; and that the sketchbook and the fencing items were more important to him at that moment than his studies, his keys, and all the rest he had left behind in Arles.

The fact that he had left all these things at the Yellow House is another clue suggesting his hasty escape. We assume that the "fencing masks and gloves" were so important to him because they could prompt questions about his armament and might lead to the reopening of the investigation. Conspicuously, in his letters to Vincent he does not mention the appertaining weapon itself, which was apparently no longer in the Yellow House at that time. Gauguin must have taken the indicating weapon away.

Subtly, Van Gogh tries to bring Gauguin's armament and aggressive character to Theo's attention, not only by his reference to "machine guns and other very harmful engines of war" and to Gauguin's "loud shouting", but also by putting „His fencing mask and gloves“ in quotation marks and in large letters. He wanted to make Theo understand that something had happened in connection with Gauguin's weapons.

That he wasn't speaking of harmless sporting arms, is also underlined in his letter to Gauguin, a few days later:
"And the 'fencing masks and gloves' (make the very least possible use of [suchlike] less childish engines of war), those terrible engines of war will wait until then. I now write to you very calmly, but I haven't yet been able to pack up all the rest."36

Speaking of these "terrible engines of war", he certainly did not mean the "fencing masks and gloves", or a harmless sporting equipment. Obviously, he was speaking indirectly about Gauguin's sword, of which he had made the acquaintance just a few days before.

Another hint in this letter is very remarkable, too:
Vincent speaks about Gauguin's flourishing imagination, and compares him to Bompard, a fictional character by the author Alphonse Daudet:
"Has Gauguin ever read 'Tartarin sur les Alpes', and does he remember Tartarin's illustrious pal from Tarascon who had such an imagination that in one fell swoop he imagined an entire imaginary Switzerland? ... And then do you remember Bompard in Numa Roumestan and his happy imagination? This is what we have here, though of another kind, Gauguin has a fine and frank and absolutely complete imagination of the south, with that imagination he's going to work in the north! My word, we may yet see some more funny things!"37

With Van Gogh alluding twice to Gauguin's "Southern imagination" and comparing him to Daudet's hero Bompard, who had "imagined an entire imaginary Switzerland" without ever having been there, he wanted to make Theo understand that Gauguin was fantasising, that he didn't tell the truth. This may also explain what van Gogh meant when he wrote:
"If Gauguin were to examine himself properly in Paris or have himself examined by a specialist doctor, my word I don't really know what the result of it would be."38

He warns Theo not to trust Gauguin's words too much:
"I, who saw him at very, very close quarters, I believe him led by his imagination, by pride perhaps but – – quite irresponsible. This conclusion doesn't imply that I firmly recommend that you listen to him in all circumstances."39

And he gives another and even more distinct hint to Theo:
"And you, who wish to know how things happened, have you ever read the whole of Tartarin? That would teach you to recognise Gauguin pretty well. I urge you in all seriousness to look at that passage in Daudet's book again."

By referring Theo so emphatically to the end of "Tartarin sur les Alpes" if he wished "to know how things happened" and in order "to recognise Gauguin" properly, Vincent emphasised again that Gauguin's story was not true. And by urging Theo to look at the final passage of "Tartarin sur les Alpes", he gave him a key to find out himself about Gauguin's role in the ear-cutting affair.

We hence followed Van Gogh's advice and read Daudet's book to find that key:

The plot of Daudet's novel "Tartarin sur les Alpes" follows the alpinist exploits of Tartarin from Tarascon during his expedition through Switzerland. Finally, on his way back to Southern France, he meets his compatriot Bompard, who boasts to be an expert mountaineer. They decide to climb Mont Blanc together. But on the way they get lost in a snowstorm. Suddenly, they both feel a jolt in the rope by which they are bound together. At this moment, either of them believes that the other is falling and would drag him down into the precipice. So both of them cut the rope to save themselves. Both friends survive, but believe to have sacrificed the other. Tartarin finds his way to Courmayeur on the Italian side of the Mont Blanc. For some time, he doesn't dare to return to Tarascon, not knowing what to tell the others about Bompard's whereabouts.
"In advance, he saw on all the lips, in all the eyes: 'Cain, what did you do to your brother?".

But finally, he has the salvaging idea: He would invent a story to conceal his fault:
"After all, had anybody seen him committing his crime? Nothing would prevent him from inventing any story."40

We believe that van Gogh had this passage in mind when he urged his brother to read the final pages of the novel. In combination with the preceding hints in his letter, he told Theo, indirectly but clearly, that Gauguin was guilty and that he had invented the story of Vincent's self-mutilation in order to conceal his own guilt, and to escape prosecution. This is reinforced by another point raised in his letter to Theo:
"Does he [Gauguin] remember the knot in a rope rediscovered high up in the Alps after the fall?"41

In the eyes of Van Gogh, both these imaginative liars, Bompard and Tartarin, represent Gauguin. The rope of Tartarin and Bompard with the cut ends becomes the symbol of Gauguin's lies and his treachery (see more in question XIV).

Vincent's several hints concerning Gauguin in his letter to Theo of January 17th 1889 give clear hints that Gauguin did not tell the truth about the incident of December 23rd 1888 and that he was involved and guilty.


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31. Vincent to Theo Van Gogh, 17 Jan. 1889; Letters 2009, nr. 736

32. ib.; «Comment Gauguin peut il prétendre avoir craint de me déranger par sa présence alors qu'il saurait difficilement nier qu'il a su que continuellement je l'ai demandé et qu'on le lui a dit et redit que j'insistais à le voir à l'instant?». - The wording "people told him time and again" refutes Nienke Bakker's conjecture (VGM 2016, p. 40) that Theo had met Gauguin in Arles on 25 December, and that he and Dr Rey had "probably" informed Vincent that Gauguin was waiting outside the hospital and that it had been them who passed on his request to see Gauguin immediately. In fact, Vincent refers here to the situation on 24 December, when he awoke from his faint and learned from the hospital staff that Gauguin was still around.

33. ib.

34. Gauguin to Vincent Van Gogh, between 8 and 16 Jan. 1889, Letters 2009, Nr. 734.

35. Paul Gauguin to Vincent van Gogh, 17 Jan. 1889, Letters 2009, Nr. 737; also Cooper 1983, p.256-257.

36. Vincent van Gogh to Paul Gauguin, 21 Jan. 1889, Letters 2009, Nr. 739.

37. Vincent to Theo van Gogh, 17 January 1889, Letters 2009, Nr. 736.

38. ib.

39. ib.

40. Alphonse Daudet, Tartarin sur les Alpes; Paris 1886, p.355; our translation.

41. see footnote 31