Disaster struck on Christmas Eve, 1888. Physically and emotionally exhausted, van Gogh snapped under the strain. He argued with Gauguin and, reportedly, chased him with a razor and cut off the lower half of his own left ear. A sensational news story reported that a deranged van Gogh then visited a brothel near his home and delivered the bloody body part to a woman named Rachel, telling her, “Guard this object carefully.” The 21st-century art historians Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans, however, examined contemporary police records and the artists’ correspondence and concluded, in Van Gogh’s Ohr: Paul Gaugin und der Pakt des Schweigens (2008; “Van Gogh’s Ear: Paul Gauguin and the Pact of Silence”), that it was actually Gauguin who mutilated van Gogh’s ear and that he did so with a sword. Whatever transpired, van Gogh took responsibility and was hospitalized; Gauguin left for Paris.
Van Gogh wrote that with The Night Café he tried "to express the idea that the café is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad, or commit a crime". When he visited Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in June, he gave lessons to a Zouave second lieutenant – Paul-Eugène Milliet – and painted boats on the sea and the village. MacKnight introduced Van Gogh to Eugène Boch, a Belgian painter who sometimes stayed in Fontvieille, and the two exchanged visits in July.
In Nuenen, Van Gogh focused on painting and drawing. Working outside and very quickly, he completed sketches and paintings of weavers and their cottages. From August 1884, Margot Begemann, a neighbour's daughter ten years his senior, joined him on his forays; she fell in love and he reciprocated, though less enthusiastically. They wanted to marry, but neither side of their families were in favour. Margot was distraught and took an overdose of strychnine, but survived after Van Gogh rushed her to a nearby hospital. On 26 March 1885, his father died of a heart attack.
In 1892 Émile Bernard organised a small solo show of Van Gogh's paintings in Paris, and Julien Tanguy exhibited his Van Gogh paintings with several consigned from Johanna van Gogh-Bonger. In April 1894 the Durand-Rue Gallery in Paris agreed to take 10 paintings on consignment from Van Gogh's estate. In 1896, the Fauvist painter Henri Matisse, then an unknown art student, visited John Peter Russell on Belle Île off Brittany. Russell had been a close friend of Van Gogh; he introduced Matisse to the Dutchman's work, and gave him a Van Gogh drawing. Influenced by Van Gogh, Matisse abandoned his earth-coloured palette for bright colours.