Vincent Van Gogh, the Dutch post-impressionist behind The Starry Night, reportedly suffered from two episodes of delirium after experiencing alcohol withdrawals in the hospital.
One of the most influential figures in the history of Western art, Van Gogh took his own life on July 29, 1890 by shooting himself in the chest with a 7-mm revolver. There were no immediate witnesses to the event. The artist was 37.
Two years before his tragic end, he mutilated his own ear and sent it to a woman at a brothel in Arles, France he frequented with his colleague Paul Gauguin. According to academics from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, this marked the artist's psychological descent that would eventually lead to his death, with the believed episodes of delirium in between.
Van Gogh's Hospitalization and Mental Decline
Van Gogh was hospitalized in Arles from December 1888 to May 1889, later transferred to the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence where he stayed from May 1889 to May 1890. Psychiatrists from the University worked to better understand his last years through his correspondences.
As a heavy drinker of absinthe - a distilled, highly alcoholic drink derived Artemisia absinthium or grand wormwood - Van Gogh suffered from alcohol withdrawal on two separate occasions during his hospitalization. Later in 1888, as Van Gogh moved to Arles from Paris, Gauguin joined him. However, while their collaboration was to both their benefits at the start, it did not last long as "incompatibility of temperament" forced the two artists to drift apart. Gauguin soon left and explained in his letters that "both he [Van Gogh] and I need tranquility for our work."
"In the night of December 22, Gauguin decides to leave. This leads to a crisis in which Van Gogh directs the aggression towards himself," the report published in the International Journal of Bipolar Disorders stated. It added that on the following day, December 23, Van Gogh cuts off his left ear. Local police found him two days later, rushing him to the hospital. It was at this point that the post-impressionist would recount having "unbearable hallucinations."
Researchers behind the report used diagnostic approaches in an attempt to better shed light to the troubled artist's experiences during this period. They interviewed three art historians familiar with Van Gogh's life and works, mostly through his correspondences with his brother Theo and his contemporaries.
One author interviewed the experts using the Structured Clinical Interview for DSM-IV, but with a slight modification - any possible symptom reported from sources during his life were noted as either "certainly not," "possibly," "probably," or "certainly" present; otherwise it was marked "unclear."
Another author of the study interviewed the same experts using four questionnaires regarding personality disorders, including the Self Test Viersprong and the McLean Screening Instrument for Borderline Personality Disorder, Two independent diagnosticians then assessed the answers provided by the art historians.
Lastly, a third study author interviewed the historians for a neuropsychiatric exam to inquire on whether the symptoms observed might be attributed to a medical condition.
"Our main conclusion is that in the case of Vincent van Gogh no single disorder can explain all his mental problems throughout his life," the researchers noted, adding that he "most likely suffered from several comorbid disorders.
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