V. Are there hints in Gauguin's artworks?


Yes, there are quite a lot of hints. And this comes at no surprise as Gauguin was a leading figure in the symbolist movement. Apart from the caricatures of superintendent d'Ornano (see above), Gauguin's fears and his involvement in the ear-cutting affair are also expressed in some strange artworks he created in Paris during the first weeks after his escape from Arles:

Firstly, a mixed technique painting "ICTUS", showing an androgynous figure presenting its left ear by a gesture of its hand [ill. 2]11. The inviting gesture pointing to the left ear, in connection with the painting of a fish and the word "ICTUS" behind the head of the young person are clear references to the ear-cutting incident with van Gogh, the fish symbolising muteness, and "ICTUS" in the language of fencing means a pass, lunge, or thrust (see below).

Illustration 2
Illustration 2

Secondly, the odd ceramic pot in form of a self-portrait with the thumb in his mouth,
[ill. 3]12 shows a Gauguin upset and frightened and forced to keep silent:

Illustration 3

Thirdly, the ceramic cup in form of a self-portrait, with his eyes closed, severed ears and a read glaze dripping down over his face [ill. 4]13 refers directly to the recent events around van Gogh's ear. In a psychological switch, Gauguin confounds the offender and the victim and puts himself in Van Gogh's place.

Illustration 4

These, and certainly other artworks by Gauguin after 1889, including his four paintings of sunflowers with an "eye", painted in Tahiti in 1901, [ill. 5]14 will have to be reinterpreted in the light of his entanglement in the ear-cutting affair.

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Illustration 5, link to source




Another indication is the repeated appearance of the word "ictus" in Gauguin's notes and in the picture mentioned above (ill. 2).
"Ictus" has different meanings: The Greek anacrostic ICTUS is the abbreviation for "Jesus Christ, God's Son, Saviour". And the Greek word "ichtys" (ictus) means "fish". The early Christians in ancient Rome used the shape of a fish as a shibboleth and as a secret symbol for their community and a warning to keep silent like a fish. "Ictus" has also a medical meaning, describing the sudden outbreak or "hit" of a disease, e.g. a stroke or an epileptic fit. Finally, the Latin word "ictus" means "blow", "hit", "thrust", and was used in fencing circles to announce a strike. Gauguin added the shape of a fish with the inscription "ICTUS" at the end of van Gogh's letter to him of 21 January 1889, behind the words "avant de tomber malade" (before falling ill).15 This was obviously a pointer to something behind this "illness". On page 220 in his sketchbook from Arles, Gauguin put down a list of keywords refering to his talks with Vincent Van Gogh, and among them "Saul. Paul. Ictus", which refers to his religious contentions with his colleague.

But most notably, on page 221, we find the word "ictus" surrounded not by a fish, but by an oval fringe resembling very much the contour of a human ear [ill. 6].

Illustration 6, Gauguin, sketchbook, p. 221

This is obviously related to the ear-cutting affair, suggesting the cut ("ictus") that severed Van Gogh's ear. Moreover, above this sketch there are some scribbles: an entwined "8" and two zig-zags, each ending on the right side with a down streak. We do not think that these scribbles above that particular ear with "ictus" written in it are random and without any meaning, since nowhere in the sketchbood you can find similar scribbles. We see here the depiction of specific fencing movements where Gauguin tries to trace back the movements of his sabre when he cut off Vincent's ear ("Ictus"!).
Since we are no fencing experts we showed these scribbles to a French fencing master; he interpreted them as fencing movements: "an Octave with transition to a Quarte; a Quarte with transition to a Counter-Sixte".


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11. Paul Gauguin, "Ictus" (1889); Watercolour and oil on paper; Collection Daniel Malingue: see Merlhès 1989, p.195; Druick/ Zegers 2001, p.279; Kaufmann/Wildegans 2008, p. 326-327.

12. Paul Gauguin,, Glazed ceramic mug in form of a self-portrait, spring 1889 [B 53, G 66], Musée d'Orsay; see also Gösta Svenaeus: "Gauguin and van Gogh", in "Vincent" – Bulletin of the Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Vol 4 (1976), p. 22.; and: Druick/ Zegers 2001, p. 281.

13. Paul Gauguin, Glazed ceramic cup with handle in form of a self-portrait, ca. 1 Feb.1889 [B 48, G 65]; see Svenaeus ib., p.25, Druick/ Zegers 2001, p. 267, Kaufmann/Wildegans 2008, p. 333-334.

14. Gauguin, Sunflowers on an armchair, 1901 [W 603], see also [W 604], [W 605], and [W 606]

15. VvG to Paul Gauguin, 21 January 1889; Letters no. 739, see there also annotation [3] in vol.4, p.394