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Most anyone who's had a beginning art history class knows Vincent van Gogh sliced off part of his left ear during a fit of madness, but now a team of German historians has published a new book arguing that the whole tale is untrue, that the story of his madness was part of a cover-up by none other than his friend and fellow Impressionist Paul Gauguin. Frank Browning has our story.

FRANK BROWNING: Van Gogh and Gauguin forged a deep friendship during the two years they lived and painted as neighbors in Arles, in the south of France. The two had built the town's reputation as an artistic colony. That dream ended in an angry exchange between the painters on the evening of December 23, 1888.

Mr. HANS KAUFMANN (Historian): We have found out that the traditional version of what happened there is wrong.

BROWNING: Namely, says German historian Hans Kaufmann, that van Gogh cut off part of his own ear with a straight razor after he and Paul Gauguin parted. Kaufmann and his colleague, Rita Wildegans, dug through original police records, biographical material and van Gogh's letters. They concluded that Gauguin, an accomplished fencer, attacked van Gogh with a rapier after van Gogh had thrown a wine glass at him.

Mr. KAUFMANN: The traditional version goes back on two reports, self-defending or self-protecting propaganda of Paul Gauguin, who himself stressed that Vincent van Gogh was mad, which is not true. He suffered from these fits, which came all of a sudden and which ended suddenly.

BROWNING: To make that case, Kaufmann cites an earlier retroactive diagnosis by an American molecular biologist, which argued that van Gogh suffered only periodic bouts of volatility and depression as a result of a likely congenital metabolic disorder now known as acute intermittent porphyria, or AIP syndrome.

None of this convinces Louis Van Tilborgh, curator of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Mr. LOUIS VAN TILBORGH (Curator, Van Gogh Museum): Well, it's an interesting opinion, but so far I have not found proof for it. There's no, as someone put it yesterday on the television, there's no smoking gun.

BROWNING: Or bloody rapier. Van Tilborgh characterizes the new book as speculation unsupported by letters from Theo van Gogh, the painter's brother, or any other evidence.

Mr. TILBORGH: What really happened between the two, we do not know exactly. I mean, there are only the words of Gauguin, and, I mean, the police did not arrest him. There is no sign from a letter of Vincent that confirms that.

Mr. KAUFMANN: If Gauguin was the perpetrator, why did Vincent not tell? Why didn't he denounce his colleague? First of all, he was very fond of his friend, and he didn't want to lose him. So he promised, when this accident happened, he promised him not to tell.

BROWNING: German historian Hans Kaufmann acknowledges there is no definitive proof of what happened that December night, but he maintains that the official story is also full of holes and speculation that his version better matches what is known of the two masters.

Mr. KAUFMAN: If the truth had been known immediately after the incident, the lives of both would have been quite different, of course. For Gauguin, it would have been prison or something like that, and for Vincent, that was the beginning of the end of his hopes for a colony of painters in southern France. He was regarded as insane after that.

BROWNING: Van Gogh was taken from his home by the police and temporarily left in jail. A year and a half later, van Gogh shot himself and died.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Browning in Paris.

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