IV. How can you substantiate that Gauguin was the perpetrator?

 

There is actually a lot of circumstantial evidence suggesting that Gauguin was directly involved in the ear-cutting affair, such as his behaviour after the incident, as well as written and pictured hints.

Gauguin’s behaviour after the incident:

1. Gauguin’s decision to stay at the hotel

In his memoirs “Avant et Après", Gauguin describes his action immediately after his encounter with Van Gogh in the streets of Arles in the night of 23 December 1888:
“With one bound I was in a good Arlesian hotel, where, after I had enquired the time, I engaged a room and went to bed. I was so agitated that I could not get to sleep till about three in the morning, and I awoke rather late, at about half-past seven.”

This passage is quite telling and raises several questions:
First of all, why did Gauguin, in spite of his notorious lack of money, decide to spend the night at a “good Arlesian hotel”, instead of going home? Some historians attempt to explain his spontaneous decision by arguing that Guguin was afraid of Van Gogh and his strange behaviour. But in view of Gauguin’s well-known poise and complete lack of timidity this explanation seems unconvincing.

Secondly, why does he attach importance to reporting that on his arrival at the hotel he “enquired the time”? That sounds as if he wanted to secure an alibi.

Thirdly, why was he so agitated that he could not get to sleep until about three in the morning and awoke already at half-past seven, after only four and a half hours of sleep? This is really a strong clue indicating that something very dramatic had happened between Van Gogh and himself during their last encounter in the streets, that he was involved in it and concerned about the outcome for himself.

2. Gauguin’s first reaction after his arrest

Gauguin’s first reaction in the morning of 24 December 1888 when Joseph d’Ornano, the police superintendent of Arles told him that his friend was found “dead”, is far from the normal emotional response you would expect from an innocent friend who learns that his colleague has suddenly died during his absence. Instead of asking what had happened to Vincent and commiserating with his colleague, Gauguin showed typical feelings of panic and guilty conscience: It took him a long time, he remembers in his memoirs, “to get my wits together and control the beating of my heart”; the glances of the people around “suffocated” him, he could speak only “stammeringly”. Only when he discovered that Vincent was still alive, he suddenly regained “all my energy and my spirit” and that is when he must have made up the story of the self-mutilation.

Gauguin recalls his feelings

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What did Gauguin mean by suggesting that it might be “funeste” (fatal) for Vincent if he saw him on the awakening from his faint? It is obvious that he had depicted Van Gogh as a madman who would react badly to his presence.

Apparently Gauguin was much relieved at his success in fooling the police superintendent: In two caricatures in his “Notebook from Arles and Brittany” he mocks d’Ornano’s credulity and his lack of acumen: In the first caricature (that he reused later for a menu), he represents d’Ornano talking to a turkey (French: dindon), which is an allusion to the popular French idiom “le dindon de la farce”, i.e. the joker, the fool. "D'Ornano tells the turkey (i.e. the joker) in Provencal dialect: "Je souis le commissaire central!!!" ("I am the police superintendent!!!").

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caricatures
illustration 1, Two caricatures from Gauguin's sketchbook

In the second caricature, d’Ornano is seen from behind regarding a painting on an easel, and the text underneath reads: “Vous faites de la peinture!”, which means roughly: “I see, you paint pictures!” –
This is how Gauguin assessed the criminological faculties of the police superintendent who was satisfied with his story about Van Gogh’s self-mutilation and who had released him without asking him to stay available for further investigation.

3. Gauguin's refusal to come to Vincent's sickbed

As mentioned before, Gauguin had told the story of Van Gogh's "self-mutilation" to Dr. Felix Rey immediately after his release and was present at Vincent's admission to the "Hospice" of Arles. Obviously he then stayed in the background for some time, awaiting the further developments. From the moment Vincent regained some consciousness and was told what had happened to him according to Gauguin, he asked urgently and repeatedly to see his friend immediately and to talk to him. But Gauguin refused to show himself, in spite of Van Gogh's repeated appeals. Evidently he wanted to avoid facing his colleague.
This again is a very strange behaviour of an innocent person whose colleague was in a life-threatening condition after having (allegedly) injured himself and wishing to talk to his friend. Gauguin's excuse that he did not want to disturb and that the sight of him might be fatal to Vincent, is not persuasive at all, and raises more questions than giving answers. Van Gogh later complained that Gauguin had disappeared without showing himself any more, in spite of his urgent requests. In fact, Gauguin saw to it that the two artists never met again during their lifetime: In the early summer of 1890, when Van Gogh wanted to join him at Le Poouldu in Brittany, he urged his landlady, Mrs. Henry, to state that there was no room left: "Never ever", he told her, "he is mad, he wanted to kill me" (Victor Merlhès (ed.): Paul Gauguin et Vincent Van Gogh 1887-1888 – Letres retrouvées, Sources ignorées;
Taravao (Tahiti) (editions Avant et Après) 1989, p. 246 footnote 4).

4. Gauguin's hasty escape from Arles

Gauguin was eager to leave Arles as fast as possible. The situation had become too hot for him. After having alerted Vincent's brother Theo by wire, he left for Paris in the evening of that same 24 December 1888. In his hasty departure he left behind not only his wounded friend and the Yellow House, but also most of his personal belongings like his studies, his sketchbooks, part of his fencing equipment (the masks and gloves), and even his keys. This suggests that he did not return to the Yellow House at all after his release and headed straight to Paris from the hospital, after having alerted Vincent's brother Theo by wire. The postman Roulin, who looked after van Gogh at the hospital and who saw to it that the Yellow House was cleaned and the bloodstained linen and clothes washed, was good enough to send Gauguin's keys after him to Paris. Gauguin, in his first letter after his escape asked van Gogh to convey his thanks: "Thank Roulin for having thought of me. I have well received my keys." (Letter 734).6
Some historians contend that Gauguin had waited another day for Theo in Arles, had accompanied him to the hospital and returned together with him to Paris. However, there is no evidence, not even the slightest hint in the documents to support that assertion. To the contrary, it is obvious that Gauguin did not wait for Theo; he had already left Arles that same 24 December, whereas Theo left Paris in the evening of 24 December, arriving in Arles the next morning, so that they travelled in opposite directions during that night. Gauguin himself gave the date of his departure from Arles clearly and unambiguously in his report to Emile Bernard, which Bernard wrote down in his letter to Albert Aurier, quoting Gauguin in direct speech: "The night before my departure .., Vincent ran after me…" and following Gauguin's depiction of what had happened during that night.7 There can be no doubt about Gauguin's indication "la veille de mon départ" (the night before my departure): It simply says that he left Arles the day after that crucial incident, i.e. on 24 December. And this is also consistent with his request to the police superintendent to tell Van Gogh that "if he asks for me, tell him that I have left for Paris". Besides, Theo never mentioned having travelled with Gauguin in the letters to his fiancée Jo Bonger reporting about his visit to Arles8, but announced his return to Paris in the singular form: "I had already left on Tuesday evening". If Gauguin had waited for him and had spent the whole day with him, and had made the long railway journey back to Paris together with him Theo would certainly have told Jo something about it. Nor did Gauguin in his reports ever mention Theo. He told Bernard simply that he had to leave Arles and that he left the day after the incident with van Gogh, i.e. on 24 December.

Here we have a profound disagreement between ourselves and other art historians.

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5. Gauguin's fear of being detected

Gauguin feared for some time that his involvement in the ear-cutting would come to light. This explains his refusal to see van Gogh at the hospital and his hasty escape from Arles. This explains also his eagerness to get back his fencing equipment instantly: In his first letters from Paris (Letters 734 and 737) he asked Vincent twice to send him "his fencing masks and gloves" as soon as possible. He was anxious to have them removed from the Yellow House, because they could easily prompt questions about the rest of his armament, should the police start further inquiries. Remarkably, there is no mention of the appertaining weapon. Obviously it was no longer in the Yellow House, so he must have either taken it with him when he left Arles, or dispersed it elsewhere. This explains further his intense emotional reaction to his attendance at the execution of the murderer Prado two days after his return to Paris and he apparently identified himself with the convicted criminal. The execution proved to be an experience that unsettled him still fourteen years later, when he wrote down his memoirs.9 This explains also a strange passage in a letter Gauguin wrote in January 1889 to an unknown "Cher Monsieur":
"I should have stayed for a year in the South, to work with a fellow painter. Unfortunately, this friend has become madding, and during a month I had to endure all the fears of a deadly and tragic accident."10
Obviously he was not concerned about his friend whom he had left in the lurch, but rather about the possible consequences of that "deadly and tragic accident" for himself. Normally a fearless and self-assured man, he now seemed uncertain and afraid of being detected.

 

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6. cf. Gauguin to Vincent van Gogh, between 8 and 16 Jan. 1889, Letters 2009, No. 734: "Merci à Roulin d'avoir pensé à moi. J'ai bien reçu mes clefs", my translation. The proposed English translation in Van Gogh Letters No. 734 "I have indeed received my stretcher keys" or "my stretchers" for «mes clefs» is misleading and absurd: nothing in the context of the letter suggests that Gauguin did not mean just his keys; and it is strange to assume that the poor postman Roulin should have sent, on his own initiative and at his own expense, some stretcher keys or wooden wedges, worthless objects which Gauguin could easily buy in Paris.

7. see footnote 3, above, and Druick/Zegers 2001, p.260; (my translation, my underlining).

8. Leo Jansen/Jan Robert (eds.): Brief happiness – The correspondence of Theo van Gogh and Jo Bonger; Amsterdam/Zwolle 1999 (ISBN 90 400 9372 5), letters 6, 9, 11, 13.

* Nienke Bakker/Louis van Tilborgh/Laura Prins: On the Verge of Insanity – Van Gogh and his Illness; Amsterdam/Brussels/New Haven (Van Gogh Museum) 2016, p. 40

9. Gauguin, Avant et Après 1989, p. 156-159; Kaufmann/Wildegans 2008, p. 330-332; Bailey (2005), p.40.

10. Paul Gauguin to an unknown Monsieur, Paris, January 1889; autograph auctioned at J.A.Stargardt, Berlin, 1/2 April 2008, lot 573b; the transcription of the letter and the facsimile reproduction of its first page are in the Auction catalogue nr. 688 , p. 240-241; my translation.