Every week, discover stories, anecdotes and secrets about the greatest artists in the history of art! KAZoART invites you on a tour through the exciting lives of our favorite painters and sculptors. Today, we tell the story of the dramatic friendship between painters Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh… or the story of how one lost an ear…

Roommates Paul Gauguin and Van Gogh

The two famous late-19th century painters were close friends, even creating a community of avant-garde artists together. In October 1888, Gauguin joined Van Gogh in Arles at the “Yellow House” he was renting, staying there for just over two months.

The two friends lived together, sharing costs, drinking significant amounts of absinthe, and painting the same subjects. Van Gogh in particular was especially prolific. Sadly, their friendship eventually deteriorated, and their living situation became untenable. The relationship was unbalanced, with Van Gogh frequently taking advantage of Gauguin, dipping into his money and failing to help with household chores…

But it was above all quarrels over art that pushed the pair apart, and on 23 December 1888 a violent dispute about painting erupted in which Gauguin argued it was important to work from imagination, while Van Gogh maintained paintings should be based on nature.

Van Gogh, The Yellow House
Van Gogh, The Yellow House, 1888, Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam

Van Gogh’s ear

The situation was tense. According to Gauguin, Van Gogh threatened him with a knife. Terrified, Gauguin immediately left. Van Gogh, finding himself alone and in the thralls of madness, appears to have then cut off part of his left ear with a razor, which he then wrapped in newspaper and took to a prostitute named Rachel, whom he saw regularly. He then went to bed. He was only found by the police the next day, confused and his head covered in blood. Gauguin explained what had happened to the police, before then leaving Arles definitively. It seems to have been the last time they saw each other in person.

 Van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear
Van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889

Another theory has, however, been put forward by two German academics, Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans. According to Kaufmann and Wildegans, during the argument, it was not Van Gogh who cut off his ear but Gauguin (a maître d’armes civiles and excellent fencer), who accidently cut his friend with his sword. The two suggest Gauguin simply wanted to frighten Van Gogh but slipped… then fleeing the scene and throwing the weapon in the Rhône (indeed, the sword in question was never again seen after the event). Few documents are available to back up either theory… and so the mystery remains!

In Tahiti in 1901, Gauguin would paint sunflowers in a final tribute (or perhaps out of remorse) to his friend who was so obsessed with the flowers and their color…

 Paul Gauguin, Still Life with Sunflowers on an Armchair
Paul Gauguin, Still Life with Sunflowers on an Armchair, 1901, private collection, Zurich

A story of two iconic artists

Born in 1848, Paul Gauguin was a founding father of modern art. His use of color in particular revolutionized the history of painting and heavily influenced artists such as Matisse and Picasso. A man with a strong personality, his life was wild and turbulent, and he worked as a banker, then a laborer on the opening of the Panama Canal, and finally as a painter in Brittany and eventually Tahiti…

Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) was also an eminent artist in the history of painting. Despite living in poverty and madness, he had many friends, including his brother Theo, painter Emile Bernard and, of course, Paul Gauguin… Fate caught up with him in 1890 when he shot himself in the chest, putting an end to his increasingly frequent psychotic events.
They both explored the potential offered by color, long before the experiments of the avant-garde artists that emerged in the early 20th century.

Gauguin, Autoportrait, 1893, Musée d'Orsay
Gauguin, Autoportrait, 1893, Musée d'Orsay
Autoportrait au chapeau de feutre, 1887, Fondation Van Gogh
Autoportrait au chapeau de feutre, 1887, Fondation Van Gogh

Similar artists at KAZoART • Cindy Nikolic

At KAZoART, Cindy Nikolic’s brushstrokes and work on color echo the works of Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh

 Inconnu du RER, Deutéranopie
Inconnu du RER, Deutéranopie, 2014