Van Gogh and his friend Gauguin (also a famous painter) were sharing a small room in Arles, France. The evening before the ear cutting incident they were at a Cafe drinking absinthe, a known epileptogenic drink that is now illegal. For no apparent reason Van Gogh picked up his absinthe and threw it at Gauguin. The next day he couldn’t remember having done it. Gauguin told him he was going to go elsewhere, which upset Van Gogh, because he was very afraid of being alone.
Some time later Gauguin went out for a walk. Meanwhile, going to his mirror and taking up his razor, Van Gogh began to shave the edges of his ruddy beard. Just then, he told the doctor, he heard a disembodied voice commanding him to kill Gauguin.
In a few minutes he reached Gauguin who, hearing footsteps, turned to find his friend, fifteen feet behind him, looking crazed and holding up a blade.
Moments later, he swung around and ran home, where he used the blade on himself, slicing off the lower half of his ear, the source of the voice that had told him to kill Gauguin.
Around midnight, van Gogh picked up his severed ear, wrapped it in paper and sent to a brothel that Gauguin frequented, where he left his ear on the stoop with a note saying it was a “keepsake” for a prostitute who had once posed for him.
Diagnoses which have been put forward include schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, syphilis, poisoning from swallowed paints, temporal lobe epilepsy and acute intermittent porphyria. Any of these could have been the culprit and been aggravated by malnutrition, overwork, insomnia, and a fondness for alcohol, and absinthe in particular.