VIII. Was the whole pinna of Van Gogh's ear severed, or only part of it?


This question has been controversial for a long time, and it is closely connected with the probability of the self-harm theory. Many historians who believe that Van Gogh had injured himself, assumed a less dangerous injury and asserted that he had cut off only "part of the ear" or the "earlobe", which made a self-harm more likely. But Rita Wildegans had already concluded in an article in 2007 that it was absolutely clear that Van Gogh's whole left auricle must have been cut off.18 And we confirmed this again in a whole chapter of our book on the basis of an extensive critical analysis of all the then available relevant written and pictured sources.19 Disregarding this, the experts of the Amsterdam Van Gogh Museum (VGM) until very recently held onto the view that Van Gogh had cut off only a part of his ear: The curator Louis van Tilborgh, during an interview with the Dutch TV "Vandaag" on 6 August 2001, claimed that it was impossible that the whole ear was cut off, because in that case Van Gogh would have "bleeded to death immediately". And Dr. Axel Rüger, the director of the VGM, stated in a lecture at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA) as late as October 2015 that Van Gogh had severed "a part of his ear".20

Fortunately this question has since been definitely settled: Bernadette Murphy, a British amateur researcher living in Southern France, recently rediscovered the precise drawing of the injury that Dr. Felix Rey had made for the American novelist Irving Stone on 18 August 1930, now in the Bancroft Library of the University of California, Berkeley [ill. 7]21

Illustration 7

It shows by a dotted line that Vincent's whole left auricle was severed close to the head in a clear downward cut with a slightly outward direction, so that the earlobe was practically cut in two. This drawing confirms our findings and renders the self-mutilation theory even less probable than it had ever been before. However, this proof of their long error has so far not stopped the experts of the VGM to cling to the old legend of Van Gogh's self-harm, which they try now to maintain by again emphasising his "insanity".22 This is astonishing as their previous insistence that only a part of the ear was severed was one of the key arguments they brought forward in defence of the self-mutilation theory.


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18. Rita Wildegans: "Van Goghs Ohr. Ein Corpusculum als Corpus delicti"; in: Curiosa Poliphili – Festgabe für Horst Bredekamp , Leipzig (Seemann) 2007, p. 192 –198; published also online in English, German and French

19. Kaufmann/Wildegans 2008, p. 296 – 311

20. Axel Rüger, Lecture "Van Gogh, the Artist and the Man", Minneapolis Institute of Art, October 2015; see

21. see Bernadette Murphy, Van Gogh's Ear – The True Story; New York (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) 2016, p. 144-149. - It is remarkable, that it was an amateur researcher who discovered in the archives of the Van Gogh Museum (Amsterdam) the hint leading to this drawing, and not the scholars at "the world's centre of expertise in all things Van Gogh" (Murphy, op.cit., p. 5).

22. Nienke Bakker/Louis van Tilborgh/Laura Prins, On the Verge of Insanity – Van Gogh and his Illness; Amsterdam (VGM) 2016