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His Illness


Dr. Wilfred Arnold, Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Kansas Medical Center, wrote an exhaustive article on the subject for the Journal of the History of Neurosciences. "The Illness of Vincent van Gogh" is now available by permission of the author. Please feel free to send along your comments to brooks@vggallery.com.
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Note: The names in the left column below are also e-mail links. If you wish to write to the person, just click on their name.

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Anonymous I believe Vincent suffered with multiple psychological problems and possibly also medical ones as well. He might have suffered with Bipolar Disorder, yes, also possibly Asperger's Syndrome. Celiac's Disease, which also could have contributed to his physical pain.

The main mental disorder I think he suffered with is what they call today BORDERLINE PERSONALITY DISORDER. I'm a sufferer of the illness and it's extremely problematic, leads many to suicide, fits descriptions of Vincent very well. I've read quotes from him describing his emotional pain and they reminded me so much of how I often feel, it was scary. As he said himself, "If the storm within gets too loud, I take a glass more to stun myself." People with BPD feel like they have much "noise" and madness inside and many will turn to alcohol, drugs, etc. - Sometimes forming addictions. He certainly seemed to have a drinking problem. Sometimes also sexual addiction and Vincent was said to have gonorrhea. He seemed to have dissociation experiences, which are also common and in severe cases of the illness, we can experience hallucinations! . He had recurrent hospitalizations because of psychotic breaks which many of it's sufferers do. He was very clingy and obsessive with others and once Theo's relationship with him was threatened, is when he would start to go to extremes, which is typical --He had written in a letter to Theo "Without your friendship I would be driven to suicide without pangs of conscience." He seemed to have "different personalities" which in BPD is common - Can be a very loving person and then at other times, raging and violent. I had read that a lot of people saw him in "rages." Self-mutilation with his ear: self-mutilation is very common in BPD and so is impulsiveness which I'm sure was the reason for what he had done and also could've been in his suicide. He spoke of emptiness,! loneliness, irritability, anxiety. Terrible mood swings that he couldn't control. He wrote "While I am absolutely calm at the present moment, I may easily relapse into a state of overexcitement on account of fresh mental emotion." What he described, what others described him as, looks just like BPD. I think he was in a lot of emotional pain because of it which is what drives many BPD sufferers to suicide!

Preston comments: I, too, have suffered from some very serious problems- one of the reasons I decided to look into Vincent's sacred world. I find what you say about multiple illnesses to be true. So that people can understand- having multiple illnesses is possible- the same mentally as physically.

I find much of what you say to be true, and quite touching, in a different sense. It is clear to me that Vincent's art would have been completely different had he not had these "mental illnesses" (If they should be called that when concerning the genius of Van Gogh.), much like Beethoven's music. Yes, they suffered from them, though, the genius behind them was far more than mental illness.

Anyway, I find your post most touching, and wish you the best.

Damien Montanile I'm inquiring about your answer of "What exactly was wrong with Vincent".   I noticed that you had mentioned his love of absinthe which he had written about several times in his letters to Theo.

I was curious if you were aware about the falsehoods that surrounded Absinthe...Being an absinthe enthusiast myself (not unlike others' fondness for wine).  There are many untruths that surround the drink.   Any addiction can most likely be attributed to severe alcoholism and not specifically related to absinthe.  

Thujone levels found in pre-ban absinthe have shown to be VERY small and despite popular beliefs, thujone does not contribute to hallucination as previously believed.   For someone to suffer from ill effects of thujone, they would have already been effected by alcohol poisoning.

None yet.
Ken Lawler I would like to propose another hypothesis regarding Van Gogh’s medical conditions. I believe very strongly he suffered from Celiac’s disease. I also believe that he knew this subconsciously. His last painting Wheat Field with Crows proves this.

Celiac’s disease is a digestive problem with wheat. Horrible bowel issues and a laundry list of other problems including depression and schizophrenia are associated with this disease.

None yet.
Javier Luque For the Visitor Submission section, Javier has written an intriguing article about the possibility of Van Gogh and lead poisoning. This in-depth and well researched article should prove enjoyable to anyone with an interest in the theories surrounding Van Gogh's illness. In Spanish and English. None yet.
Sana Malik Presently I am of the opinion that Vincent may have suffered from some sort of a dissociative disorder . . . . [more] None yet.
HJE So many people focus entirely on posthumous diagnosis of Van Gogh's illness and have never considered what his illness meant to Van Gogh as a person and an artist, evidence of which can perhaps be found in his letters and in some of his paintings. I was wondering what people thought of this aspect of the whole "illness" question. None yet.
Janet Smith I believe Vincent was dyslexic. Based on a number of elements in his art. ADHD is sometimes diagnosed when in fact the person is dyslexic. David Brooks comments: I was a bit skeptical about the idea of Vincent having dyslexia given the huge amount he read, but Janet passed along two websites of interest:

Dyslexia is misunderstood. http://www.clubi.ie/dyslexia/history.html
Dyslexics read. http://www.dyslexia.com/qafame.htm

David Brooks The issue of Van Gogh's health and the medication he may have taken has always been an interesting one. It has been suggested that Van Gogh was on a certain drug (actually a root back in those days) that is similar to the common drug Lanoxin. One of the side effects of Lanoxin is blurred vision with yellow halos around objects. An interesting idea. Can anyone confirm this? Jose Navarro of Utrera, Spain replies.

And Josephine comments on Jose Navarro's observations: "Aaccording to Jose Navarro Lanoxin can cause the side effect of visual halos around objects. The way the moon is surrounded by an 'aura.' However, I am not quite sure that may be true . . . . the way light can play tricks! He might as well have had bad eyesight which shows things blurry. But I think that the effect of the drugs and maybe his eccentricism might have caused it all."

Vicky Curtis Including my medical background and my affinity for Van Gogh, I feel that his problem was a two-folded one. None yet.
Robert I have no idea what caused Vincent's mental and physical breakdowns. But I would like to suggest that he may have been suffering from cataracts. Yes. When you have cataracts, as I do, all lights have halos, rings, auras around them. His depiction of stars, moon, sun, interior poolroom lights, etc., all have halos around them, much more prominent than is apparent to the ordinary visual image. Just something I thought I might throw in to the over-all picture of him. None yet.
Brad Henry And speaking of the issue of Van Gogh's physical and mental problems, Brad asks "Has anyone documented what was the nature of Van Gogh's mental illness? I noted in reading the Bio that Van Gogh had gonorrhea at one time. Is it possible that his mental problems were related to long term exposure to that disease or possibly long term exposure to syphilis? I understand that mental disorders can occur from long term untreated syphilis."

Can anyone recommend a good, well researched book which explores this issue in detail?

Paula Grove has an excellent recommendation.

Anh-Thu Rasaretnam has another book recommendation of her own.

Matthew Stump I have an interesting theory about Van Gogh's mental illness that could also explain his painting style. I believe that Van Gogh suffered from schizophrenia. I came to this conclusion while reading an account of a Aldous Huxley's experience of a mescaline trip. Mescaline is a substance very similar chemically to adrenochrome, the substance that in excess causes schizophrenia. While under the influence of these substances an individual experiences a heightened sense of sight. Colors seem to "come alive" and are vivid and bright. Many people also experience a golden hue cast over everything. This could explain Van Gogh's preoccupation with yellows and his use of very bright colors where as many other impressionists of his time use subdued colors. This could also explain his paranoia (believing that someone was trying to poison him) and his many "fits". Please feel free to contact me with any input, ideas, or insights you may have.

Please note I am not saying that Van Gogh abused mescaline, but that mescaline is very similar to the chemical adrenachrome that causes schizophrenia. I used the accounts of mescaline users to give insight to what a schizophrenic person would experience, and better illustrate my point. As far as mescaline abuse goes I doubt the substance had yet to be exposed to the western world. It was originally found in a few rare South American plants and peyote of the American southwest. It is very unlikely that he came into contact with the drug during his lifetime.

None yet.
Matthew Brown I have an inquiry concerning the circumstances surrounding Van Gogh's cutting off of his ear, specifically why he did it. I recall hearing on a news program last year that a scholar was attributing the incident to an extreme case of vertigo. The scholar claimed Van Gogh had so many bells and flashes going off in his head that he was driven to cut off his ear to try to remove what he perceived to be the receptor of those noises. Also, what was the relation, if any, between his ear and [the English woman who was the object of his admirations--the name escapes me], and also between his ear and the prostitute. M.E. Meyer-Arneson of Carrot River, Saskatchewan, Canada shares some interesting information.
Kay Francis As my youngest son is Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), when I read Lust for Life and read some of the letters you posted on your website, I couldn't help but think that our dear Vince was a lot like my son. Here's some speculative evidence:
  • Vincent didn't fit well in "society" but didn't seem to care.
  • Vincent preferred the out-of-doors (less emotional stimulation).
  • Vincent's artwork seems to reveal hypersensitivity to the senses (he sees the wind, feels green, etc.).
  • Vincent would forget to eat.
  • Vincent wouldn't sleep or sleep lightly/restlessly.
  • Vincent would have extreme highs and lows.
What do you think?
None yet.
Courtney Robson I held myself back from writing anything to you for fear of making myself look ridiculous compared to the psychoanalysts and art historians who voice themselves on this site. But while reading and rereading your "InSites" page, I've decided that my ideas as a sixteen year old are just as intelligent as theirs. I think the incessant diagnosing of van Gogh's illness is unnecessary. Though the topic itself it very interesting, I do not believe it is the cause of his brilliance in art. You can argue until the cows come home that his addiction to absinthe is the reason for the yellow halos around stars. And you can say that Van Gogh thought he was Christ on the sheer grounds that he shot himself in the side. I think he was a phenomenal man. He expressed his beliefs, his thoughts, his soul in his work, and you can blame it on the fact he was poor and suffered from malnutrition--but I think he ran deeper. When I see a painting by van Gogh, I don't believe he painted because he had syphilis. I see past the fact that the man lived in an asylum. I focus on the art and the spirit it expresses instead of the autism or gonorrhea or tinnitus or lead addiction or vertigo that so many people claim he had. I am not saying the man was sound. But I do not agree with those who say van Gogh had acute intermittent porphyria or some other distant disease. They are but childish opinions from a child herself, but something had to be said. David Brooks replies: She makes an interesting point. It does seem at times that people are so intent on forming a conclusive diagnosis of Van Gogh's illness that Vincent's art and his writings are overshadowed.

Additional comments?


Dr. Paul Berkowitz adds: To respond to one of your reader's questions about Vincent having tinnitus. I have come across a bit of speculative articles about various artists (in all modalities - painting, music, film, etc.) and their respective mental illnesses. A good portion of this is urban-legend and/or romanticized garbage.

Tinnitus is a condition consisting of a tingling sensation within the ear. It is classically associated with aspirin overuse. I am not certain, but would be willing to speculate, that other substances (illicit or not) may also be able to induce a tinnitus (either because those substances contain aspirin (salicylic acid) or are able to induce the same disturbance). While the disturbance may be intense enough to make one have thoughts of self destruction I wonder if this is just what Vincent suffered from. It may have been a part of his illness.

a1a84765@bc.sympatico.ca I am not a Van Gogh scholar by any means (I've learned more about the man browsing your web site tonight than all of my previous school years combined), but I am perplexed by his self mutilation ordeal in 1888. As I understand it, he become extremely intoxicated one evening, sliced off a section of his ear, and later presented it to a waitress at a local bar. As well, I've read quite a bit regarding his swells of depression, erratic behavior, and eventual suicide. Now, my theory is this: could tinnitus have been a contributing factor to his behavior? (in case you're not familiar with tinnitus, here is a link for the American Tinnitus Association for more information). Tinnitus has been linked to erratic behavior, mood swings, depression, and in the more extreme cases, hallucinations. Has this idea already been explored? David Brooks replies: Somewhere in my travels I seem to recall some speculation about Van Gogh and tinnitus, but where??? It's an interesting idea. Can anyone comment?
"Jean" has some comments on the topic.
Marti Nash I would like to add yet another theory on Van Gogh's illness that is not often seen in the books and websites. It's a theory that was discussed in an Art History course I took in college. My professor discussed the distinct possibility that Van Gogh had lead poisoning. In those days the threat of such a toxin was unknown, and lead was in a majority of the oil paints that were used. Apparently Van Gogh used to manipulate his artwork with his thumb and would then lick it off. He also used to eat out of the same bowls he used for painting. Not to mention that, in those days, when an artist painted outdoors -- they did not have access to cleaning facilities nor had an abundance of clean rags unless the artist was wealthy. It seems very likely to me that Van Gogh's hands would be full of paint for a vast majority of his career. I have not heard this theory anywhere else, nor have I read about it. I would love to know if anyone else has heard of this and get some opinions on how likely this could be. David Brooks comments: It's an interesting idea. I seem to recall speculation about others dying from lead poisoning (or was it mercury?). Mozart was it? In any case, Marti raises an intriguing possibility.

Persia Tuvim adds: Read your lead poison observation,Without reservations agree with your lead poison theory wholeheartedly. Any one who has spent time working with lead based paints knows you get nauseous, dizzy, headachy, and worse, need ventilation above all.

Van Gogh terribly neglected his health, besides his mood swings, bipolar disorder, manic depression etc., the lead paints he inhaled, ingested, surrounded and overwhelmed him. Is it any wonder he suffered severe depression eating/breathing lead paint fumes every day, esp. in bad weather when he worked indoors for long stretches.

Joseph Johnson also comments: i have heard this theory about lead poisoning as well. in fact i heard two versions. one is that vincent often painted with his fingers because his brushes became dry and useless so he would lick the paint off each time he changed colors. another person said he had read that vincent would suck on his brushes while contemplating his next brush stroke. either way he would most definitely have gotten lead poisoning from the paint. it would also make sense because the frequency of his fits increased at a time when he was painting at an incredible rate. look at how many paintings he did in the last year of his life. and he seemed obsessed with self portraits during the last few years of his life. looking at the way he painted himself you can see that he was not well. his expressions become even more tormented near the end. and he painted more obsessively, like someone going through withdrawal and needing more drugs to maintain the high, he would have had no idea that the paint was causing his illness and his need for more lead. is lead addictive? i can remember years ago when gas had lead in it and as a child i loved to smell the gas when my dad would be pumping it in the car. i used to ask him if i could go with him whenever he would get gas because i loved the smell of it. is it a coincidence that i can't stand the smell of it now that there is no lead in it? have there been studies on lead to see if it can be addictive?

Lim Sijmons from Belgium is doing some research on artists and drug abuse and adds: I'm not sure of it, but I heard once that in Absinthe there also lead.

Maria I have a theory that Van Gogh's Father rejected him because of his failure to follow the family traditions both as a minister and in the art gallery. Consequently, the guilt felt by the great master, compounded by a sense of betrayal to family line, innitiated or provoked his mental illness. He could not be what his Father wanted him to be and--his art was bursting inside!. I would like to know your opinion. None yet.
This person (why don't people give a name?) I have an opinion, or thought as well on Vincent's illness. Although, I do not know so much about him (his childhood though would be a clue) and therefore, perhaps you could look up the disorder and let me know if it fits by chance. It's called Asperger's Syndrome . . . . . Carl Lindberg also discusses this issue.
Dr. William F. Trinkhaus Dr. Trinkhaus has a keen interest in the physical and psychological issues concerning both Vincent and Theo. Here are some of his comments:
  • "I'd be interested in hearing from others who have read Stranger on the Earth. The author, Albert J. Lubin, appears to be a psychoanalytical psychiatrist who has had the opportunity to know and work with Dr. V.W. van Gogh, Vincent's nephew and has studied the medical records of Vincent at the sanatorium in Saint-Rémy where Vincent incarcerated himself."
  • "If Vincent had bi-polar depression as some think, and if he had been placed on Lithium as would be done today, would his creative output have been effected?"
  • "Are there any significant artists known to have bi-polar depression and are there any significant artists on Lithium whose creative talents have not been effected?"
  • "Does anyone know anything about a Dr. Jacob Spanjaard? Is he a translator of the Van Gogh Letters? In the book mentioned above Albert J. Lubin states 'I have also obtained the invaluable help of the Dutch psychoanalyst Dr. Jacob Spanjaard, who not only reviewed my writing but compared all of the translated quotations in the manuscript with the original sentences from Vincent's own hand and suggested many changes--a task beyond the call of duty.'"
  • "The Mayo Clinic web site recently stated that the manic phase of manic depression often is associated with a burst of creativity in some individuals and interestingly there appears to be a widely held opinion that Vincent Van Gogh had manic depression. Hope to find out what facts this opinion is based on."
Gwendol Bowling shares some interesting insights on bi-polar depression.

Angela also has some comments on the same topic.

A visitor also had this question for William: "Could you give me a reference, if not quotations, from the book Stranger on the Earth that deal with beliefs and substantiating information that V.V.G. suffered from manic depression? Any help appreciated."

And William replies: I am not sure that I will be able to answer your request satisfactorily but I will try. There is a web site dealing fully with Manic Depression also known as Bi-Polar depression. It is located at www.pendulum.org. There under a list of famous people with Bi-Polar depression Vincent van Gogh is listed. A definition of Manic Depression is a mental condition in which a patient's mood usually swings from overly "high" and irritable to sad and hopeless and then back again with periods of normal mood in between. On page 153 of Stranger on the Earth there is a statement that Vincent's depression was replaced by an hyperactive, hypersensitive state similar to the manic phase of a manic-depressive psychosis, but that unlike the typical manic state that is disorganized and aimless, Vincent's was goal oriented and was put into the service of art rather than wasted away.I have read in the Bipolar web site mentioned above that such a burst of creativity is not unusual in Bipolar- Depression. In the index of "Stranger on the Earth" there are several references to the recurring episodes of depression in Vincent's life.To me episodes of depression and such an episode of the described creativity are indicative of Bi-polar depression.

"Stranger on the Earth" is I think an excellent book in which a psychoanalyst attempts to analyse Vincent van Gogh from his letters and what is known of him.


Sharon comments on the subject:

I am an artist with bipolar disorder. It seems the only time I feel inspired is when I reach a hypomanic state, which is less than full-blown mania. During this period, my senses are heightened and my mind is flooded with ideas. Colors become more vivid and I feel creatively alive. When I sink into depression, however, the creative spark flickers out.

Alessia Moretti In my Photo Gallery section I include some information about Theo's physical health and the eventual cause of his death, but Alessia is interested in Theo's psychological health: "Was it true that Theo was ill of a psychological disease?" Jose Navarro of Utrera, Spain comments: About Theo's psychological disease Heri Perruchot, in his book "La Vie de Van Gogh" says that after Vincent's death, his illness was worse. In October, he could not urinate, and his nephritis degenerated in an uraemia with deliriums. He, ordinary so sweet and so prudent, argued with his employers, and gave up his job slamming the doors. Lost his mental control, he intended to kill his wife and his son, so it was necessary his entry in a clinic in Passy. The crisis was short and Jo made use of a period of calm to take Theo to Holland, where she had to reenter him again in a hospital in Utrech. Affected of an hemiplegia he died there the 21th January 1891, six months after Vincent's death.
Kelli Sager Personally, I personally feel it was acute intermittent porphyria.

Acute intermittent porphyria is a hereditary disorder characterized by hypertension, colic, psychosis and abnormalities of the nervous system. His fondness towards camphor and others like it only aggravated the development of intermittent porphyria. Two of his brothers and one sister may have been suffering from it as well.

Dr. William F. Trinkhaus responds: There is an excellent discussion on the probability of Vincent's illness being Manic Depression rather than acute intermittent porphyria or Meniere's Disease in Touched With Fire: Manic-depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament by Kay Redfield Jamison pages 317 through 319. I agree with her that Vincent's illness was manic depression.

Gwendol Bowling shares some insightful comments about Van Gogh and camphor.

Jenn Jett I have some theories about Van Gogh's death and his cutting off of his ear lobe and would like some discussional feedback. Vincent, I believe, could never grasp the grace of God; never able to understand His forgiveness. I think this had a bearing on his depressive state. It is said that Martin Luther sometimes inflincted pain on himself because he felt he deserved this as a sinner. Could Vincent have cut off his earlobe in the same light? Vincent frequently compared himself to Christ. It is known that Van Gogh shot himself in the side. If he wanted to kill himself wouldn't he have shot himself in the head or in the heart? I think he wanted to suffer as Christ suffered. Maybe this in why he shot himself in the side . . . paralleling this incident to Christ's suffering and death on the cross. Christ was slashed open in the side. Any thoughts? Tom DesLongchamp comments: I just read your thoughts on van Gogh's illness. This could be true that he chose to suffer and die like Jesus Christ. Vincent did speak in a letter (or more) about feeling a great power growing inside him. Like God was giving him a great strength inside. I think this was only a high in his bipolar disease that ended resulting in a feeling of unforgiveness.

I know a Christian man with bipolar disorder. In his ups, he feels above everyone and that God is surely proud and happy with his doings. When he is in his downs, he feels like he deserves to go to hell and that God is unhappy and unforgiving. This, to me, supports your idea. Feel free to write me back. I would surely appreciate it. Thank you.

David Brooks also comments: It's a tricky issue. Did Van Gogh mutilate his ear as an act of religious penitence? Personally, I've always viewed the ear-slashing incident as a completely irrational act in a state of total mental collapse. Van Gogh himself never wrote about his reasoning for committing the act. Furthermore (again, in my humble opinion) I think that the idea that Van Gogh has self-delusions of Christhood may be reading too much into the situation. He shot himself in the side--as an act of Christ-like self destruction? Who knows? I would argue that it's probably unlikely, but Vincent did paint the Christ in his famous Pietà with his own face. It's an interesting area of discussion. For more of Van Gogh and religion I would recommend At Eternity's Gate: A Spiritual Vision of Vincent van Gogh by Kathleen Powers Erickson.

Carl Lindberg from Finland Carl raises an interesting question regarding Van Gogh and autism. Cindy responds and suggests that the autism possibility could be genetic:

It seems to me that Van Gogh did have some form of autism. I'm related to Van Gogh and my son has autism and it is genectic. My son has the same characteristics as Van Gogh and we are related. He is my great great uncle and there are many boys in the family that act the same way. I'm just finding this all so stange. Any comments?

Julie Lancaster-Whann asks: I was wondering, does anyone know if Vincent van Gogh had multiple personalities? The reason I ask is because in viewing all of his self-portraits, there was something different about each and every one. Almost as if he were painting a different person each time. Maybe a different personality in each portrait. Also, one of his buttons is different than the rest, in one of his self-portraits, it looks to me as if it might be an eye. Anyway, I just wondered if anyone else notices these things. Mark responds: I just read your comment concerning Vincent's portraits looking different each time you look at them. Could it be that instead of Vincent's personality changing so much, it's just that you see the portraits differently every time you see them? Maybe Vincent intentionally changed the way he portrayed himself, because, as an artist, he wanted to show people what was going on inside of himself. Instead of always painting the same expression on all 100 of his portraits, he wanted variation to keep things interesting. For example, he once painted himself as a Buddhist monk. Was Vincent van Gogh secretively a Buddhist? Probably not. But possibly he inwardly sought to find the peace of one. Get where I'm going? OK. Because that's one of the things that made Vincent the Father Of Expressionism. It is an art form that got away from representing everything exactly the way it outwardly appears. That's why a bartender has green hair in one of his paintings, but the same bartender has brown hair in the next painting. Make sense?? It does to me.

I hope this is an alternative way of seeing Vincent's portraits.


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