The chaos behind a legendary portrait

I just found this fascinating account of how Vincent Van Gogh cut off his own ear while seemingly severely mentally ill, the event that led him to paint one of his most famous pictures.

The account is apparently reconstructed from known events at the time but also has van Gogh’s own description of the event, taken from letters to his sister.

On Christmas Eve 1888, after Gauguin already had announced he would leave, van Gogh suddenly threw a glass of absinthe in Gauguin’s face, then was brought home and put to bed by his companion. A bizarre sequence of events ensued. When Gauguin left their house, van Gogh followed and approached him with an open razor, was repelled, went home, and cut off part of his left earlobe, which he then presented to Rachel, his favorite prostitute.

The police were alerted; he was found unconscious at his home and was hospitalized. There he lapsed into an acute psychotic state with agitation, hallucinations, and delusions that required 3 days of solitary confinement. He retained no memory of his attacks on Gauguin, the self-mutilation, or the early part of his stay at the hospital…

At the hospital, Felix Rey, the young physician attending van Gogh, diagnosed epilepsy and prescribed potassium bromide. Within days, van Gogh recovered from the psychotic state. About 3 weeks after admission, he was able to paint Self-Portrait With Bandaged Ear and Pipe, which shows him in serene composure. At the time of recovery and during the following weeks, he described his own mental state in letters to Theo and his sister Wilhelmina: “The intolerable hallucinations have ceased, in fact have diminished to a simple nightmare, as a result of taking potassium bromide, I believe.”

“I am rather well just now, except for a certain undercurrent of vague sadness difficult to explain.” “While I am absolutely calm at the present moment, I may easily relapse into a state of overexcitement on account of fresh mental emotion.” He also noted “three fainting fits without any plausible reason, and without retaining the slightest remembrance of what I felt”

Although absinthe is commonly associated with hallucinations and madness, and the author of the article wonders whether it might have helped cause his epilepsy, this is unlikely due to the fact that the effect of absinthe’s ‘special ingredient’ is largely a myth.

The distinctive aspect of the drink, the chemical thujone from the wordwood plant, is actually present in such small quantities that absinthe has virtually no psychoactive effects beyond the alcohol.

However, epilepsy does raise the risk of psychosis and it is suspected that he had temporal lobe epilepsy which is particularly associated with this reality-bending mental state.

Link to AJP article on ‘The Illness of Vincent van Gogh’.

10 thoughts on “The chaos behind a legendary portrait”

  1. Great finding Mind Hacks!

    Just a quick remark about absinthe. I had never heard of the “special ingredient” in absinthe before. However, absinth produced at the time of VanGogh was mainly a homemade, backyard-distilled liquor, using low quality alcohol that probably contained substantial amounts of methanol. Methanol is a potent neurotoxic. Its consumption is known to cause blindness. It is well possible that its regular absorption, maybe combined with other drugs, could have caused madness or epilepsy.

  2. hi vaughan! nice article. the other day someone mentioned (perhaps it was tony david) that the fact that van gogh cut off his ear might be related to a hallucination he was experiencing at the moment. the idea being that he cut off part(s) of his ear in order to stop hearing the voice which perhaps van gogh perceived as originating in/near his ear. any thoughts on this hypothesis? can it be backed up with facts?

  3. @sebzskp
    Around the time Van Gogh was drinking, absinthe was in full commercial production. While there were plenty of low quality bottles floating around, Van Gogh often drank at bars that I assume served a commercial product.

  4. Good point! However, Van Gogh was a contemporary of preban absinthe (i.e. before 1915). Commercial production at that time did not necessarily mean quality as it does nowadays.
    We will probably never know whether his madness was linked to alcoholism or a pre-existing condition, or both.
    Either way, the article is original and interesting to read.

  5. Oh certainly, while there were plenty of good, high quality brands, there were some that used known and unknown poisons in their products. As annoying as the FDA can be, it’s so nice to have a government food regulator that looks down on poisoning the customer.

    Van Gogh is an interesting case and there are plenty of different theories and papers about his ‘madness’. I find it a bit sad that he was fully aware of his condition and spent his life battling it while society hindered his progress. Luckily he left behind his own thoughts on the matter in the form of letters to family members, especially his brother Theo. I would like to think that if he was around now he would have gotten the help he needed. Van Gogh is a great example of the myth of the depressed/crazy artist as most of his work was done during lucid sane periods of his life.

    IMO his exact disease will always remain hazy partly because he knew about it and was self medicated or forcefully medicated. Since some madness cures were worse than the disease, I expect there were a combination of things driving him mad.

  6. I love it when people don’t know what the hell they are talking about. I have had Absinthe, real Absinthe now the now legalized soft core version with minuscule amounts if any at all Thujone. I would hardly call the Thujone content minuscule. Wormwood is the source of the Thujone and it is terribly bitter stuff, all the other ingredients in the stuff are a feeble attempt to cover the taste of the wormwood. The effects are still mild by comparison to modern weed but similar in nature with stronger visual effect than weed. To say it has no psychoactive effect is pure ignorance. That said it has no greater effect on a stable mind as any other psychoactive substance. He was clearly a nut-job.

  7. I attempted to brew my own in 1988.
    My memory of that is pretty comparable to (supposedly)pre-ban and post-ban absinthe I’ve tasted.

    Terribly, terribly bitter stuff.

    And not terribly interesting, compared to any other alcoholic drink.

    I’d also like to say something about this mythology of Vincent Van Gogh as some “impaired mad genius”.

    Vincent Van Gogh – from a personal, life-perspective, may have had emotional issues, but I highly doubt he had much cognitive impairment going on when it came to his technical, artistic skill.

    If you study his work as I have, you will observe that he was doing some very sophisticated thinking, about form, and color, and even some very cutting-edge human perception science. If you understand the technical complexity of Seurat’s work, then you’ll understand that Van Gogh’s technique had all of Seurat’s rigor – plus the sensitive expressionist/impressionist content. (not sterile and analytical, like most early pointillists).

    For the post-Impressionist period, he had no peer. It’s also a mistake to say that he was an unsuccessful artist. Unlucky perhaps. Maybe, not as skilled a businessman. Before he painted, he also drew, and he was an extremely skilled draftsman, and he made a modest living selling drawings. It was unfortunate that when he became a painter, the works he made were perhaps not as well-promoted as some of his more famous peers, and this was certainly a large part of the reason why his more avant-garde work was not found to be in-fashion with the contemporary art world, until after his notorious death. Such is the unpleasant world, and ugly business of Fine Art. This is not the popular view of Vincent Van Gogh, but it is the more scholarly view.

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