The intense and turbulent friendship between the Post-Impressionist masters Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh lasted only 63 days and ended in one of the most bizarre acts in the history of art — van Gogh brutally slicing off his own ear. But while the friendship became intense and fraught, it began with the brightest of hopes.
In October of 1888, the 40-year-old Gauguin arrived in the sleepy French city of Arles after months of insistent invitations from van Gogh, then 35. The Dutch-born van Gogh, little known outside avant-garde Parisian circles, dreamed of transforming Arles into an artist’s commune and believed that Gauguin, an older and more established artist, was destined to be its leader.
For van Gogh, the long-awaited arrival of his mentor was a sign that his vision was finally coming true, but Gauguin had different motivations. Gauguin’s art dealer in Paris was Vincent’s brother, Theo van Gogh, and Theo had promised Gauguin 150 francs a month if he relocated to Arles. Far from becoming the “bishop” of a burgeoning artist’s collective, as van Gogh had envisioned, Gauguin saw Arles as a way to scrape together enough money to get back to the island nation of Martinique, his true source of inspiration.
"The relationship was doomed from the start,” says Bradley Collins, an art historian at the Parsons School of Design and author of Van Gogh and Gauguin: Electric Arguments and Utopian Dreams. Once in Arles, Gauguin made it clear that he didn’t much care for the town — he called it “the dirtiest hole in the South” — and announced his intentions to eventually return to the Caribbean.
“With those words, he completely destroyed van Gogh’s fantasy of Gauguin serving as the leader of a new artist’s collective,” says Collins. “Van Gogh became a kind of time bomb after that because he was always concerned that Gauguin would leave.
The friendship had a competitive undercurrent
With this shadow hanging over their relationship, the artists settled into a small corner house in the center of Arles immortalized by van Gogh in “The Yellow House (1888). Van Gogh was coming off an intensely productive summer, during which he produced some of his most enduring masterworks, including “Still Life: Vase with 15 Sunflowers (1888) and “Starry Night Over the Rhone (1888). Although Gauguin was meant to be the mentor and van Gogh the student, Collins says there was also a competitive undercurrent.
Gauguin, for example, chose to paint some of the same subjects as van Gogh. In response to van Gogh’s “The Night Café in the Place Lamartine in Arles (1888), Gauguin painted “Night Café in Arles, Madame Ginoux” (1888), which Collins believes is a caricature of the original. The two men also painted portraits of each other, the most famous being Gauguin’s “The Painter of Sunflowers” (1888) that captured van Gogh fully absorbed in his work, with hooded eyes and a blank stare. When van Gogh saw it, he reportedly commented, “That’s me, alright, but it’s me gone mad.”
The artists had contrasting personalities.
In Gauguin’s personal journals, written many years later, the elder artist made much of the “Odd Couple” nature of his and van Gogh’s contrasting personalities. For one thing, Gauguin was a slow and methodical worker, while van Gogh often slapped paintings together in a couple of hours. There were also organization and cleanliness issues.
“Everywhere and in everything I found a disorder that shocked me,” wrote Gauguin. “[Van Gogh’s] colour-box could hardly contain all those tubes, crowded together and never closed. In spite of all this disorder, this mess, something shone out of his canvases and out of his talk, too.”
Collins says that Gauguin seemed to have a deep respect for van Gogh’s work. The older artist was enthralled with van Gogh’s first sunflower series when it was shown in Paris, and although he disagreed with van Gogh’s thick impasto painting style, he couldn’t deny its power. But it’s also clear that Gauguin would not have shown van Gogh so much difference, or put up with the Dutch artist’s oddball behavior, without Theo’s influence.
For his part, van Gogh bristled at Gauguin’s preoccupation with money. When van Gogh envisioned his artist’s collective, it was almost monastic, says Collins, marked by a communal sense of sacrifice for an ideal. Gauguin’s version of an artist’s colony was more like a trade union, where painters pool their work and sell shares to investors. In an uncharacteristically anti-semitic tone, van Gogh once complained to Theo about Gauguin’s “Jew plan.”
Van Gogh became more erratic
It’s hard to know the exact truth about the series of events that led to Gauguin fleeing by train to Paris two days before Christmas. Gauguin’s journals present him as a caring mentor disturbed by van Gogh’s increasingly erratic behavior and concerned for his own life. Van Gogh reportedly took to standing silently over Gauguin’s bed while he slept, and spent their shared money on prostitutes and absinthe. One night, after van Gogh threw a drink at Gauguin’s head in a bar, Gauguin finally reached his limit. He told van Gogh that he was writing Theo and going back to Paris.
Gauguin’s decision to leave Arles was apparently too much for van Gogh’s fragile sanity. The next day, Gauguin reports that van Gogh chased after him in the street with a razor blade. Gauguin checked into a hotel for his safety, not knowing that his housemate had returned home and inexplicably cut off the lower part of his left ear. According to police reports, van Gogh then went to a local brothel, asked for a woman named Rachel, and presented the wrapped and bloody ear to her as a keepsake.
“You have to see the ear cutting in the context of the relationship with Gauguin, and van Gogh redirecting some of the anger he felt toward Gauguin toward himself,” says Collins. “Why it took that bizarre form, who knows?”
The two men would never see each other again in person, although they continued to write each other letters right up until van Gogh’s tragic suicide in an insane asylum at age 39.