The Psychology of Vincent van Gogh

A quick note: this paper was written for an Intro to Psychology class, and should be read as a psychology paper with an art historical lens, not an art history paper outright.

Vincent van Gogh was a Post-Impressionist artist who is most famously known for his masterpiece Starry Night and the fact that he cut off part of his ear. But there is so much more to him than that. Vincent (he preferred the use of his first name, therefore I will refer to the artist as such) led an extremely difficult life. He held many careers that he did not succeed at and quickly abandoned. His lovers rejected him. He lived in 37 different locations in his 37 years of life, and was institutionalized several times.  It was only in the last ten years of his life that he decided to become an artist, although he had drawn on and off throughout his young adult life.

Vincent was born in The Hague in 1853 a year after his mother gave birth to a stillborn son. He saw himself as a replacement child, which contributed early on to his depression and inability to become close to anyone. He was born with craniofacial asymmetry, which neurologist Henri Gastaut claims was caused by an early brain injury, probably in infancy (Blumer, 2002). This injury may have caused his severe reaction to absinthe later in life. As an adolescent, Vincent was sent to work with his uncle who was an art dealer and owned a gallery. There, Vincent started to learn about art. His uncle transferred him to London, where Vincent suffered his first heartbreak. It was then that he dropped his career of art dealership to pursue religion, as his father had. When he failed at this, too, he spiraled into depression (Lubin, 1996).

After Vincent decided to become an artist in 1880, he moved to Paris to live with his brother Theo. It is during this time that we have the least information on him, since he was living with the person he often wrote to. But it is also during this time that Vincent’s psychological problems began to show. His colleagues, such as other impressionist painters of the time, despised his company because Vincent was very quarrelsome and easily agitated. He felt very trapped and soon moved down to Arles in the south of France for a fresh start. Once he arrived, he promptly wrote his brother: “I was surely about to suffer a stroke when I left Paris. It affected me quite a bit when I had stopped drinking and smoking so much, and as I began to think instead of knocking the thoughts from my head. Good heavens, what despair and how much fatigue I felt at that time” (De Leeuw, 1997).

It was in Arles that Vincent painted some of his most famous works. It is also the setting for his most severe psychotic episodes. He regularly indulged in one too many glasses of absinthe, which may have contributed to the severity of his episodes. Absinthe is known to cause seizures and hallucinations, both of which Vincent suffered. Chronic use of absinthe has been claimed to cause loss of intellect, derangement of sleep, visual and auditory hallucinations, impairment of speech, convulsions,and death (Baylor, et al. 2002). By the end his life, Vincent was addicted to absinthe and was suffering many of its symptoms.

His goal in Arles was to create an environment that he and the artists he admired could paint together, a “studio of the south” as he called it. When his friend Gaugin stayed with him, they fought often, and it was the last of their fights in which Vincent self-mutilated himself and cut off his ear. Shortly after, he was sent to an asylum. It was there that he was diagnosed with epilepsy by Dr. Felix Rey (Chowdhury, 2008).  In 1860, Dr. Morel listed the symptoms that were to be so prominent in van Gogh’s illness:

Under the term larvate epilepsy I have described a variant of epilepsy which does not reveal itself by the actual minor or major attacks, but on the contrary by all the other symptoms which accompany or precede ordinary epilepsy characterized by seizures, that is: periodic alternation of excitement and depression; manifestations as it were of sudden fury without sufficient grounds and for most trivial reasons; a usually most irritable disposition; amnesia, as usually occurs in epilepsy, of dangerous acts carried out during momentary or transient rages. Some epileptics of this type have even experienced genuine auditory and visual hallucinations (Blumer, 2002).

He may have been treated for this epilepsy by his primary physician, Dr. Paul-Ferdinand Gachet, who used digitalis. Digitalis causes one to see in a yellow tint, with starry-like spots. It was a common treatment at the time, and may have contributed to his excessive use of the color and the yellow corona stars found in Starry Night (Wolf, 2001).

From that point on, Vincent’s psychological state just became worse. He moved around more and was institutionalized by the village people, he even checked himself into an asylum, where his depression deepened. He wrote his brother, “I am unable to describe exactly what is the matter with me; now and then there are horrible fits of anxiety, apparently without cause, or otherwise a feeling of emptiness and fatigue in the head.…and at times I have attacks of melancholy and of atrocious remorse,” (De Leeuw, 1997). He made his last move in 1890 to Auvers-sur-Oise. He was at this point painting more cloudy, lonely scenes. About to paint a wheatfield, he asked a local farmer to borrow a gun in order to scare the crows away, and with that gun, he shot himself. He died in the hospital two days later on July 29.

Vincent had attempted suicide a few times previously. As a person living with manic depression and epilepsy, the likelihood of a suicide increases 4-25 fold higher (Barraclough, 1987). He only sold one painting in his life, to his own kin, never married, and was constantly living alone. His tragic life is part of what makes Vincent so memorable. “If I could have worked without this accursed disease, what things I might have done,” he said in one of his last letters (De Leeuw, 1997).

 

References

  1. Baylor, M.R., Holstege, C.P., Rusyniak, D.E., (2014). Absinthe: Return of the Green Fairy. Department of Emergency Medicine, Indiana University-Purdue, Indianapolis, Indianapolis, Indiana, USA
  1.  Barraclough, B.M., (1987). The Suicidal Rate of Epilepsy, Acta Psychiatry Scand. Medline
  1.  Blumer, D., (2002).The Illness of Vincent van Gogh. American Journal of Psychiatry, Volume 159 (Issue 4), 519-526. Retrieved from http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/full/10.1176/appi.ajp.159.4.519
  1.  Chowdhury, A.N., (2008). Vincent van Gogh and Mental Illness. The British Journal of Psychiatry, Volume 193 (Issue 2), 167-168. Retrieved from http://bjp.rcpsych.org/content/193/2/167.3
  1. De Leeuw, R. (1997). The Letters of Vincent van Gogh. (A. Pomerans, Trans.) Middlesex, England: Penguin Books.
  1.  Lubin, A. J., (1996). Stranger on Earth: A Psychological Biography of Vincent van Gogh. New York, NY: Da Cappo Press.
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