Vincent van Gogh

From the Wall Street Journal

Doctors Examine Vincent Van Gogh

‘On the Verge of Insanity: Van Gogh and His Illness,’ a new exhibit in Amsterdam, explores the artist’s symptoms and possible diagnoses


What exactly was Vincent van Gogh’s problem? This summer, in a Dutch exhibition and a related symposium, art historians and physicians will debate a question that has long puzzled the medical and art worlds.

“On the Verge of Insanity: Van Gogh and His Illness” opens July 15 at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum and runs until Sept. 25. The 60 artworks and objects on view will include a payment receipt for an asylum stay by the artist and a February 1889 petition from citizens of Arles, the southern French town where van Gogh had a series of breakdowns, requesting that their mayor have the artist institutionalized.

Among the artworks are two from 1889, painted just after van Gogh recovered from mutilating his left ear in late 1888: “Still Life with Onions” and, from Moscow’s Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, a portrait of Felix Rey, the young physician who treated van Gogh after his injury. The show also includes the unfinished “Tree Roots,” on which the artist apparently was working the day he shot himself, July 27, 1890, at the age of 37.
Van Gogh exhibited a range of symptoms, from hallucinations to memory lapses, behaving erratically with friends, family and strangers. “Nobody could live with van Gogh,” says Steven Naifeh, the co-author (with Gregory White Smith) of “Van Gogh: The Life,” published in 2011. During his lifetime, the artist was diagnosed with epilepsy.

As van Gogh’s posthumous fame grew, so did the diagnoses. The symposium, set for mid-September in Amsterdam, will consider epilepsy and other explanations, among them bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder. Mark Kramer, professor and chair of internal medicine at Amsterdam’s VU University Medical Center, will address the role that van Gogh’s alcoholism may have played in his behavior.

“Van Gogh definitely suffered from some psychiatric disease,” worsened by alcohol, says Dr. Kramer, a consultant on the exhibition. As for epilepsy, a fashionable diagnosis in France at the time: “If you had hiccups back then, they called it epilepsy,” he says

Mr. Naifeh says that some doctors cherry-picked the artist’s symptoms to suit their own specialties. He cites some diagnoses, made over the decades, that he considers unlikely. One is acute intermittent porphyria, a metabolic disorder that can cause delirium and may have caused British King George III’s bouts of insanity. Another is Ménière’s disease; supporters of this diagnosis argue that van Gogh sliced into his ear in part to relieve the illness’s trademark tinnitus. The medical fascination with van Gogh extended to Dr. Rey himself, who claimed that he kept the artist’s ear in a jar in his office, the Van Gogh Museum’s Nienke Bakker says.

The biographer believes van Gogh suffered from a combination of temporal lobe epilepsy, a neurological disorder associated with debilitating seizures, and bipolar disorder. Mr. Naifeh thinks that the absinthe the artist drank and the mercury he may have received to treat syphilis could have exacerbated these conditions.

Corrections & Amplifications

Dr. Rey claimed that he kept the artist’s ear in a jar in his office, according to the Van Gogh Museum’s Nienke Bakker. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Dr. Rey had held on to part of Van Gogh’s ear.





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