In December 1888, Van Gogh chopped off a part of his of his ear and presented it to a prostitue called Rachel, so the story goes. "Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear" depicts the aftermath of these events, but provides us with few clues to their motivation. Rumors surrounding the notorious incident abound, but surprisingly all that is known for sure is that it was triggered by a conflict with Gauguin. Some have proposed that illnesses such as schizophrenia, epilepsy, or even alcoholism were to blame. Certainly his neighbors considered Van Gogh a dangerous man and, on his returning to the Yellow House from hospital just two weeks later, they signed a petition to the mayor expressing their displeasure at his reappearance.
Similiar to Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe (1889), this painting, unlike the other, gives a real sense of personal catastrophe. Still dressed in winter coat and fur hat, this self-portrait includes an easel in the background. Van Gogh seems to be relating his suffering to his art. "Look what art did to me", he appears to be saying. Alternatively, the theory goes the easel reaffirms his continuing commitment to his art despite his recent breakdown. The Japanese prints in the background remain an important influence for the artist who here has a vulnerable yet steady gaze. He seems to be looking but not seeing, deep in contemplation of his own anguish.