I wanted to comment on this painting because I find it to be one of the most touching and saddening paintings I know of Van Gogh's. There are disagreements about how one sees his facial expression, but to me it's seriously depressing. I suppose, knowing the background story of this very painting and more generally of Vincent's life, must influence my perception of it; but nevertheless, you can't say he's getting ready to go out partying.
That's the strange thing that doesn't spring out to your eyes at first but on second thought: "what the hell is he doing with a coat and hat inside his house?" And indeed, inside his house he is. But before I talk of this, the ear thing must be explained. Given the painting's title, you well imagine that Vincent's most famous body part will come into play. And you're right. It does. It comes right now. So, I assume most of you have heard the legend and God knows what other variations of it. But may Truth be told. First of all, Vincent did not cut his entire ear off, only the lobe (not that it makes it any saner, but if I had to choose between the two, I'd go Vince's way). Secondly, we are not certain of why he did this. The only thing critics seem to agree on is the fact that a prostitute was apparently involved. You have to know, in case you don't, that Van Gogh was mentally affected with something similar as to what Virginia Woolf was going to suffer from a couple of decades later. Vincent was sick in the head, not reasonlessly batshit crazy. Now let's have the ear story and get over it once and for all.
So, Van Gogh lived an extremely lonely life and was almost always alone in that period when he painted the above exposed painting. He went to a prostitute, probably looking for some human warmth, and that is about all we can say for almost sure. Then what happened exactly, we ain't too sure. I don't suppose Vince and her tried some new SM sexual technique, but rather than Vincent had a crisis. It's said that he proposed to pay her with a piece of his ear, which might be true or not (I have no idea how we would know anyway) but the mental attack theory is way much more plausible. And that is the one we will take. So you have to imagine Van Gogh going on an insane fit and hurting himself.
This paragraph I write in 2008, years after this was originally written. The trigger of Vincent’s crisis was the departure of his only friend, if you could consider this asshole a friend, Paul Gauguin. Among the things Gauguin did that make me disrespect this man thoroughly is that he tried to get credit for Van Gogh’s paintings, such as the sunflowers, whereas in truth, these paintings were already in Van Gogh’s house before Gauguin even saw them. Also, Gauguin abandoned his wife and children to go have sex with underaged prostitutes in the islands of the Pacific. Gauguin was never a good friend to Vincent and when he finally abandoned him, Vincent had this crisis.
The painting represents him once he's back home, alone. He has bandaged his hurt ear and obviously has got out of his insanity crisis. This kills me some. The hurt Vince alone in his home after some event he must not clearly understand. The other thing that breaks my heart is that he wears his outdoor clothes inside. The coat, the hat. He looks like he needs protection and uses everything he can to protect himself from the outside. His spiky hat literally looks like a hedgehog being defensive. His coat is buttoned up. He certainly still hurts from the cut, and likely, he doesn't remember much of what happened. And these eyes. That reminds of mine when I stare at a mirror and look at myself like I'm not expecting anything anymore. Breaks my heart.
In the background you can see a Japanese painting. This doesn't mean much at first sight without some knowledge of Van Gogh’s past. Fact is this: Vincent used to paint those Japanese style paintings in a previous and much happier part of his life. This painting in the painting (mise en abyme) is in fact Vincent's own painting. It stands in his back like his past happy life as a young painter in Paris.
I know this may not be one of Van Gogh's most famous or even best paintings, but it's a personal favourite of mine, and a most heart-wrenching one at that. And those pikes on his hat, "don't touch me I'm hurt." I love this painting for what it tells. Or for what I find in it, whichever.
And this paragraph I write in 2009; I have come across a theory in which the mysterious ear-esque mutilation might have been a direct attack from Gauguin. Gauguin was well-trained in sword fighting, and he had one when he went to visit Vincent. The idea is that Gauguin slashed Vincent's ear off after he (Vincent) insisted too much that Gauguin should stay, or something like that. Afterwards, the two made a pact of silence in which Vincent was to never reveal the odious attack. Vincent held true to his word. And Gauguin held true to his being one hateful asshole.