In a recent item I wrote regarding Paul Gauguin's unstable (to put it mildly) home life and his incredible wanderlust during the last twenty years of his life, I touch briefly upon his turbulent friendship with Vincent van Gogh. An online friend wrote expressing interest in just what kind of relationship these two creative dynamos might have had. She questioned the traditional cover story that there was a woman involved, probably a prostitute, and that there was a very unfriendly rivalry between the two for her affections. It's a neat, compact, little story and I, too, have my doubts whether there is much truth in it. It's likely both men were friends with one or more prostitutes hanging out at the local bistro and that Vincent, at least, may have had some emotional attachment to one in particular (the ear thing). The other side of this coin is that there may have been some kind of emotional attachment between the two artists themselves.
I'm not sure anyone, besides the two principals, knows exactly what happened. There has been lots of conjecture. In general, you had two very troubled, maladjusted, assertive, creative individuals, both full of tremendous self-doubt, one at least, diagnosed with a mental illness, the other full of justifiable guilt over having left his family, and neither of them able to sustain a long-term relationship with one another or anyone else for that matter. Alcohol was a factor, as were two fiery, hot-tempered personalities that were basically incompatible. Van Gogh was highly emotional, a very instinctive, high-strung, hyperactive painter. Gauguin was much more cerebral in his approach to art, little concerned with outside influence in his work (unlike van Gogh) but instead could be considered the first true Expressionist painter, even more so than van Gogh. Gauguin came to Arles at the invitation, indeed pleading, on the part of van Gogh, who hoped, quite unrealistically, to set up some sort of artists' commune there.
That much we know. We know also they both had money problems and for that reason alone probably hung on together far longer than they might have otherwise. Now, as to a century of conjecture, usually centring upon sex. We can assume, having been married and fathered five children (and from other accounts) that Gauguin was not gay. The issue here is less clear with regard to Vincent, whom researchers speculate may have had homosexual tendencies, perhaps even repressed sexual feeling for Gauguin. We do know that Vincent's life-long religious beliefs would have been very much at odds with any overt sexual expression toward Gauguin, which in any case Gauguin would likely have rejected. There can be little doubt that Vincent had a strong emotional attachment for his friend, an unbounded need to love and be loved that many feel he had difficulty pronouncing or expressing in any mutually acceptable manner. This is quite likely the root cause of their break-up. Gauguin would not (or could not) accommodate Vincent's debilitating need for a close, personal bond between them. He may well have fled his wife and children for the same reason. Also, Gauguin was likely astute enough to realise that a continued association between the two of them would do neither of them any good. Whatever the case, the one thing we can say for certain is that the brief, tormented relationship between them was not sexual, was not a love affair, and is not one easily analysed one hundred years after the fact.