There is a little known self-portrait executed by Vincent van Gogh near the end of 1888, just weeks before he mutilated his left ear, an act he performed late on the night of December 23rd that year. Like all his self-portraits, this one was done in the studio, in front of a small mirror. This means we are viewing the left side of the artist's head as rendered in three-quarter profile, just how Vincent would have seen his own reflection.
Here, van Gogh's face suggests a certain unease and dissatisfaction. Furthermore, the top of the head is strangely misshapen--squarish--as if hurriedly painted and not quite finished. The hair, although short, is choppy and a bit disheveled. There is something awkward and purposefully crude about the head.
Notice, then, the unusual lock of hair that falls directly across the left ear, a very peculiar feature considering how short the rest of the hair is cropped. This streak of paint divides the ear in much the same way that Vincent would later slice through his real ear with an open shaving razor, severing the lobe from the tragus on downward. This odd lock approximates the inclination of the cut, although as the artist was right-handed, he most likely sliced from the outer edge of his ear downward to the tragus. Was the bold brushstroke that Vincent used to create this detail a precursor of the slashing motion he was soon to employ with his straightedge razor?
It is also a surprising feature that the left ear in this self-portrait is streaked with red; in fact, the bottom part of the ear is outlined in reddish pigment, the very segment that Vincent was to excise. In using the color red in this way, was van Gogh portending the bloodshed he would inflict upon himself?
At the time he completed this portrait, Vincent was having violent disagreements with his friend and fellow artist Paul Gauguin, who had been lodging with him for nearly nine weeks in a small two-story house in the town of Arles, in part of southern France known as the Midi. Contrary to Vincent, Gauguin found this part of Provence very unpicturesque. And he found life with his high-strung comrade increasingly hard to bear. Van Gogh wrote his brother Theo that he sensed his friend was on the brink of leaving him and moving back north to Brittany, a prospect that Vincent both loathed and dreaded: He had dreamed of founding an artist's commune in the little house at Arles, with the revered Gauguin as its director.
In van Gogh's native language, Dutch, a common slang term for "penis" was "lul," which is very close to the Dutch word for "ear," "lel." Gauguin often signed his own works, abbreviatedly, "P Go," which in French would be pronounced like an English seaman's slang for "penis," "pego." Gauguin had worked as a sailor in his younger days, and interacted with mariners from many foreign nations, including Great Britain. He was also quite boastful of his virility and sex appeal, especially around Vincent. Gauguin was just the sort of archly suggestive fellow who would delight in identifying himself with the male procreative organ.
In his intense anxiety over the departure of the virile leader of the "Studio of the Midi," Vincent van Gogh may have symbolically enacted the loss of Gauguin ("pego") by slashing off his own figurative penis. That the lower part of the ear held a sexual significance for the painter is demonstrated by the fact that he delivered the amputated part to a prostitute he knew from a neighborhood brothel.
Curiously, this painting below was one of Vincent's self-portraits which he intended as a gift--for fellow artist Charles Laval, who had been a close companion of Gauguin in a journey to Martinique. Van Gogh gave his portrait to Gauguin's friend, just as he would soon give the gift of his severed ear to the prostitute. During his two-month stay with Vincent, Gauguin also regularly visited the local "maison de tolerance" and knew the women who worked there, including, very likely, the one named Rachel, to whom van Gogh gave his sectioned ear.
According to Gauguin, when van Gogh began to suspect that he would be left alone in Arles, he tore a line from the daily newspaper and handed it to him. The line read, simply, "Le meurtrier a pris la fuite." ("The murderer took flight."). Perhaps Gauguin's imminent abandonment of van Gogh's creative enterprise found lurid expression in a symbolized castration, one the artist had already performed on this self-portrait, a little before that horrific evening of December 23rd, 1888.