Myths and Facts About Vincent Van Gogh
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Myths and Facts About Vincent Van Gogh

Did Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh sell only one painting in his lifetime? Did he really cut off his own ear as a cheap Christmas present for his girlfriend? And did this tortured genius really commit suicide? Ever since his death in 1890, his legend has eclipsed his actual life. Here we sort through the myths and the facts about Van Gogh.

Vincent Van Gogh is considered to be one of the most influential artists who ever lived.  His legend has far eclipsed his actual life. 

Myth: Van Gogh Only Sold One Painting in His Lifetime

Van Gogh sold at least two painting in his lifetime – “Red Vineyard at Arles”, which sold for a mere 400 francs and an unknown self-portrait to London art dealers Sulley & Lori for an unknown amount.  A letter to the dealers from Van Gogh’s brother Theo from October 3, 1888 refers to this painting.

But Van Gogh was able to sell some drawings and watercolors during his lifetime, according to is surviving letters to his faithful brother Theo.  He also fully expected to receive commissions for more drawings from art dealers and magazines.  However, Van Gogh did not make much money on these drawings and watercolors and lived mainly on the charity of his brother.

Myth: Van Gogh Cut Off His Ear to Give to a Prostitute

It is unknown just how and when this myth originated.  It was popularized in Irving Stone’s best-selling fictional biography of Van Gogh, Lust for Life (1934) and the film based on the novel.  In the novel, Van Gogh gives his ear to his favorite prostitute because she made a comment that she liked his ears.  He did not have any money to give her a Christmas present, so he gave her his ear. 

In 2009, two German art historians made a case that it was actually fellow artist and bad houseguest Paul Gauguin who cut the lower third of the ear off with his sword after the two artists got into a row.  Both artists then decided to never talk about the incident again, probably so as not to damage their careers.

Myth: Van Gogh Was a Self-Taught Artist

Van Gogh could not afford extensive training, but did take some art classes when he lived in The Hague, Brussels.  He also began classes with the successful Dutch artist Anton Mauve (1838 – 1888.)  Mauve was married to Van Gogh’s cousin, or Mauve may have had nothing to do with Van Gogh.  The classes only lasted less than a month.

According to Van Gogh’s surviving letters, Mauve thought Van Gogh was a failure as a painter and would taunt Van Gogh mercilessly about Van Gogh’s personal habits.  It is generally thought that Mauve dropped all contact with Van Gogh after learning that Van Gogh was having an affair with a prostitute, but Mauve and Van Gogh probably did not get along.

Myth: Van Gogh Shot Himself

On July 27, 1890, Van Gogh is discovered in his room at an inn with a bullet in his chest.  The trail of blood from a wheat field to his flat probably set off alarms for Dr. Gachet, his last physician.  Van Gogh presumably shot himself and somehow managed to screw it up.  He would take days to die.  He was 37.

But Van Gogh actually shoot himself?  And if he did, why didn’t he shoot himself in the head and spare himself such a lingering death?  In the critically acclaimed Van Gogh: The Life (Random House; 2011) Steven Neifeh and Gregory White Smith argues that two boys playing cowboys and Indians accidentally shot Van Gogh and Van Gogh never ratted on the boy.  If Van Gogh could keep quiet about Gauguin cutting off his ear, he could certainly have kept quiet about who shot him – or so the theory goes.  Van Gogh was in a terrible depression at the time of the shooting and may have not cared about much of anything anymore.

Additional References

Van Gogh.  Rene Huyghe.  Crown Publishers; 1967.

Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh.  Irving Stone & Jean Stone, editors.  Plume; 1995.

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Comments (4)

Hey, Rena - neat stuff. Sometimes we buy into fluff - like George Washington & the Cherry Tree - without questioning plausibility.

Thanks, Vincent!

I enjoyed your article very much. I am a huge Van Gogh fan and have read Letters to Theo and Lust for Life. I love the post impressionist period. His work is so emotive from the brush strokes to the colors that he selected. There is also some thought that he may have had lead poisoning from the paint and then there is also the epilepsy theory and the general Absinthe induced craziness. 

Thanks, Judith.  I'm a big fan of Van Gogh's drawings more than his paintings,, but his "Sunflowers" is one of my favorite paintings ever.  My mother is a bigger fan of Van Gogh's than I am and splurged for a few books on Van Gogh.

There are lots of theories as to what various illnesses Van Gogh suffered from. I suffer from migranes, occassionally with auras, and I can't look at "Starry Night" without wondering if Van Gogh had migraines with auras, too.  An article from the American Journal of Psychiatry postulates that Van Gogh suffered a brain injury, possibly at birth.