XI. If Gauguin had cut off Van Gogh's ear, why didn't Van Gogh report him to the police?


This question is very important and has occupied us for a long while. But we found several explanations for this seemingly odd behaviour:

First of all, for more than a week, when Gauguin invented and spread the story of the mad Dutch artist who had cut off his ear, Van Gogh was in a very critical state, and for some days near to death. Not only was he weakened by "a very considerable loss of blood, as an artery was severed"24, but he suffered a first seizure of his strange disease. During these crucial days, he was unable to think or to express himself clearly. And later, when he heard and understood the story Gauguin had told the police and doctor Rey, i.e. that he should have cut off his left ear himself with a razor, he knew that this was not true, but he would not contradict openly. He prevaricated, pretending that he did not remember exactly what had happened.

To understand this, we must consider Van Gogh's general character as well as his particular feelings towards Gauguin: Van Gogh admired Gauguin. He had done all he could to persuade him to come and live with him in Arles, he had longed for him for months, he hoped to establish a "Studio of the South" under his leadership, he had spent a lot of Theo's money to decorate his bedroom and to please him. In a way, he was enamoured by him. And generally, he had a high ideal of friendship; it would have been impossible for him to denounce a friend and colleague and possibly send him to prison. He would be silent. Thus he tried to reassure Gauguin in his first letter after the incident: "and yourself, please, trust that in fact no evil exists in this best of worlds, where everything is always for the best".25
By his "Please trust", he assured Gauguin that he would not denounce him and that he had nothing to fear of him.

Secondly, and more significantly, Van Gogh, at that stage, was still hoping that they could resume their common life in Arles, irrespective of what had happened.

He wrote to his brother:
"What is fortunately certain is that I dare believe that at heart Gauguin and I like each other enough as characters to be able to start over again together if necessary."26

And to Gauguin:
"Whatever the case, I hope we like each other ("nous nous aimons") enough to be able to begin again if need be, if penury, alas ever-present for us artists without capital, should necessitate such a measure."27

This was another reason why he couldn't burn the bridges by denouncing Gauguin:
In fact, he still hoped for a continuation of their common life in the Yellow House.

Thirdly, van Gogh felt guilty somehow and thought himself complicit in the escalation of the drama. He believed that by his own behaviour, by pressurising Gauguin too much he might have caused the passionate friend to become aggressive:
"I find remorse, too, in thinking of the trouble that I've occasioned on my side, however involuntarily it may be — to Gauguin. But prior to the last days I could see only one thing, that he was working with his heart divided between the desire to go to Paris to carry out his plans, and life in Arles."28

And finally, van Gogh had proposed to keep quiet about the matter, as suggested in Gauguin's report to Bernard:

"You are silent, but I shall be silent, too".29

He clearly wanted to keep the matter between Gauguin and himself (see question XII).

Many years later, in a letter to his friend André Fontainas, Gauguin also assured:
"As to van Gogh's noble character, I had to congratulate myself, being the artist with sealed lips."30

Here Gauguin, too, confirmed the existence of that 'pact of silence' between them. He had every reason to keep silent over the matter and to be grateful to van Gogh who had kept his promise. But as a precaution, Gauguin laid the red herring by stressing van Gogh's insanity as the cause of his alleged self-harm. And as neither of them ever revealed openly what had really happened, it has been so difficult for art historians so far to discover the truth.


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24. Vincent to Theo van Gogh, 7 Jan. 1889, Letters 2009, No. 732.

25. Vincent to Paul Gauguin, included in Vincent to Theo van Gogh, 4 Jan. 1889; Letters 2009, No. 730.

26. Vincent to Theo Van Gogh, 19 Jan. 1889, Letters 2009, Nr. 738.

27. Vincent Van Gogh to Paul Gauguin, 21 Jan. 1889, Letters 2009, No. 739.

28. Vincent to Theo Van Gogh, 22 Jan. 1889, Letters 2009, Nr. 741.

29. see above, footnote 3 (question II); the phrase was underlined in Bernard's letter to Aurier.

30. Paul Gauguin to André Fontainas, Sep 1902; in: Malingue, Maurice: Lettres de Gauguin, Paris 1946, Nr. 176, p. 306, our translation, our underlinig.