Vincent van Gogh isn’t best known for his incredible artwork, his dedication to his craft, or his massive contributions to Western art. Rather, his most distinguishing feature is something he doesn’t have: an ear. Van Gogh was said to have famously chopped off his left ear in a flurry of uncontrolled rage. Yet, his sudden ear removal may not have been an act of self-injury at all. This is the true story of how Van Gogh actually lost his appendage.

Van Gogh’s eccentric reputation

Hey, let’s be honest here: van Gogh was a pretty eccentric guy. The genius was no stranger to chaos. He often experienced severe delusions, psychotic episodes, and other symptoms of mental unwellness. Yet, rather than fixing his issues, he dealt with them in the good old fashioned way: by drinking, eating junk, and letting himself go. As it turns out, this wasn’t the most effective method.

Thanks to his fits of rageful, dysregulated behavior, it’s not surprising that many believe the popular narrative that he removed his own ear. Heck, he even dedicated a whole painting to a self-portrait without his treasured appendage. His reputation didn’t carve him out to be the type to lose an ear by accident. However, he likely didn’t surrender his ear in a severe emotional downswing. Rather, it may have been the fault of one of his buddies.

Ah, a good old fashioned lover’s quarrel

There’s no doubt in any historian’s mind that van Gogh’s famous ear-loss incident had tons to do with his dearest friend, Paul Gaugin. The French artist befriended van Gogh and decided to move in with his best pal. However, their union of households didn’t quite as planned. While Van Gogh was happy with living in the French countryside together and producing work, Gaugin was pretty bored. He grew restless at “Yellow House,” their shared studio, and decided that he wanted to return to his home in Paris. Unfortunately, van Gogh was head-over-heels in love with Gaugin…and he didn’t take the split so well.

The rumor of how van Gogh lost his ear originally boiled down to a passionate act of self-harm following a tiff with Gaugin. A heartbroken van Gogh confronted Gaugin about his decision to return to Paris and a tussle ensued. Out of rage and desperation, van Gogh supposedly hacked off his own ear with a razor. He also delivered his severed appendage to a prostitute in a brothel who fainted at the sight of van Gogh’s clammy ear. Following this lunacy, he went home, collapsed in his bed, and got some serious shut-eye. He nearly bled out by the time that anyone discovered him. Yet, two historians have challenged this account of the famous scenario.

Okay, so maybe it wasn’t his fault

In the novel Pact of Silence by Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans, it’s argued that van Gogh’s missing ear was not a result of an act of self-harm. Instead, they believed that Gaugin’s involvement in the bloody incident was much more hands-on than it was made out to be. Besides being a great artist, Gaugin was also a master fencer. When van Gogh grew highly emotional at his departure from their shared home, Gaugin may have been confronted with one of van Gogh’s worst fits of anger. The savvy swordsman may have pulled his weapon on van Gogh and sliced his ear clean off. Still, historians don’t believe that Gaugin meant to intentionally wound van Gogh.

Despite their fight, Gaugin still viewed van Gogh as an extremely close friend. It’s likely that Gaugin haphazardly drew his sword in self-defense during van Gogh’s emotional explosion and accidentally removed his ear in the process. Additionally, van Gogh was madly in love with Gaugin. He was willing to protect him from the consequences of his crime, even if it meant taking the blame for his missing ear. After his ear got sliced off, Gaugin and van Gogh exchanged letters in which they seemed to discuss the crime. However, they took a “pact of silence” not to discuss the ear-splitting incident.