III. Why do you doubt the testimony of the “crown witness” Paul Gauguin?

 

First of all, Gauguin was not an eye-witness of Vincent’s alleged self-mutilation: According to his own words he was not present when Van Gogh should have cut off his ear. In both of his reports, he states that he had spent the night at a hotel and that he had no idea of what had happened to his colleague when he came home in the morning. Van Gogh was unconscious and unable to speak (and later never confirmed to have cut off the ear himself); there was no other witness; and since the police initially arrested Gauguin as a suspect, it is evident that up to that point they had not found any evidence or concluded from the circumstances that Van Gogh had harmed himself.
In both versions, Gauguin introduces his story with the words: “Voici ce qui s’était passé” (“The following had happened”). But it is unclear how he should know all the details of what his friend had done and we believe he made it up during his interrogation as the only logical conclusion.
Unfortunately, there exist no documents such as minutes about the questioning, and, conspicuously, in neither of his reports Gauguin gives any details about his testimony during the interrogation, except in version 2 where he reported to have said to the police officer: “Be kind enough, Monsieur, to awaken this man with great care, and if he asks for me, tell him I have left for Paris; the sight of me might prove fatal to him.” This casts some light on his tactics which we shall elaborate on later. Anyway, he succeeded in convincing the Commissaire Central of his story, and was released. Some people see his release as proof of Gauguin’s credibility and his innocence5, but on closer examination, his accounts are dubious, unlikely and inconsistent.

It is also noteworthy that he later ridicules d’Ornano as a gullible idiot (see below).

Very generally, a suggestion that someone should have cut off one of his ears should be treated with appropriate caution. In his memoirs, Gauguin describes himself as a clever liar. And in this case there is a lot of circumstantial evidence showing that he did not tell the truth: Van Gogh’s words “The murderer took flight” and “You are silent, but I shall be silent, too” (reported by Gauguin himself, but not properly explained in the literature so far) and Gauguin's spontaneous decision to spend the night at a hotel (in spite of his notorious lack of money), as well as Van Gogh’s later remark that he had wanted to keep the matter “between himself and me”*, illustrate that something significant had happened between them that Gauguin avoided to disclose. We accept that there was an encounter between Van Gogh and Gauguin in the streets of Arles and near the brothel during that night and the proven fact that Van Gogh handed over his severed ear at that brothel suggests that the ear had been cut off right then and near there as it is not credible that after the argument with Gauguin in the streets, Van Gogh should have walked home, cut off his ear there, bandaged the wound, wrapped the severed ear, and then walked back to the brothel and back home again, as Gauguin wants to make us believe.

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5. see e.g. "On the Verge of Insanity", 2016, p. 165, footnote 16

* Letter 736, "Leo Jansen/Hans Luitjen/Nienke Bakker (eds.): Vincent Van Gogh, The Letters – The Complete and Annotated Edition (6 vols); Amsterdam/The Hague/Brussels 2009 (ISBN 978-90 6153 853-00/2009/703/46; quoted as: "Letters 2009"