Absinthe and wine have often been blamed for causing the deterioration of Vincent van Gogh’s mental and physical issues, however last week an investigation by prominent experts suggested that the withdrawal of alcohol might have contributed to certain mental issues.
In an article titled “Van Gogh likely to have suffered two times from delirium caused by withdrawal of alcohol” The University Medical Center Groningen, located in northern Netherlands surprised everyone with the news. Experts say that it is the first time that it has been suggested that certain of the artist’s problems resulted from an insufficient intake of alcohol.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s portrait of Vincent van Gogh (1887) Courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)
Wine and Van Gogh
When he was in Paris in 1886-1888 Vincent consumed a lot of alcohol at the bar of Montmartre most likely the absinthe as well as wine. After his departure , he sent a letter to brother Theo to inform him that he was “almost an drunk as a result of drinking too much”. In Arles In Provence it appears that he may have reduced his consumption of alcohol however he still enjoyed the wine at meals.
The Groningen paper , recently made public in International Journal of Bipolar Disorders (Springer Open) The paper is written by four of the most eminent experts: Willem Nolen, Erwin van Meekeren Piet Voskuil, and Willem van Tilburg.
They claim that Van Gogh was afflicted with delusion (sudden confusion) for at least two times, “due to alcohol withdrawal as he was compelled to stop drinking alcohol abruptly after his admission to the hospital following the ear injury”. He was hospitalized between 24 December 1888 and 7 January 1889. Then after a setback his return to the hospital occurred between 7 and 17 Feb 1889.
In late January 1889 between these two times of hospitalisation, during which he had probably been devoid of alcohol. He made an unfinished still-life with personal belongings of his home in his Yellow House. The front in the picture is an open bottle, which appears be empty. While its meaning isn’t completely clear however, the bottle could be a sign of welcome the return to normalcy after his stay in hospital.
Vincent Van Gogh’s Still Life (1889) Courtesy of the Kroller Muller Museum. Otterlo
The researchers claim that when the artist was moved into an asylum, he was “forced to limit or reduce or even stop drinking”. The study therefore is built on the assumption Van Gogh was a non-drinker during his time in the asylum. However, I’d argue that this isn’t true The fact is that he was permitted to drink twice the amount of alcohol that is normally served to prisoners.
When Vincent had been considering whether to enter the asylum on the outskirts of Saint-Remy-de-Provence he asked his brother Theo if he could have “a little more wine than usual down there, half a litre instead of a quarter [a day]”.
In the subsequent letter he wrote to the asylum doctor Theo made two specific demands: Vincent “should be at free to paint outside of the premises” in addition to “have at least half a bottle of wine at every meal”. In modern terms that’s the equivalent of 42 UK units of alcohol per week. This is three times more than the current minimum recommended.
While it might come as unexpected that wine was served in abundance in French asylums. A survey conducted by the government in 1874 for all French asylums revealed that males typically received between 14 and 40 centiliters of wine daily although not the same as Van Gogh’s fifty centilitres but nevertheless quite significant.
It’s real the fact that Vincent addressed to Theo that following his arrival at the asylum, he kept “absolute sobriety when drinking, eating, and smoking” however it does not mean he was abstinence. This means that he was not drunk, though it’s not impossible to imagine having a glass of wine for dinner and lunch. Vincent could also have been implying that he had stayed clear of spirits, as wine was so widespread that it was hardly discussed. It is likely that he probably consumed about a half-liter of wine every time during periods where his health was generally good.
Concentrating on the conclusions drawn from Groningen study Four authors assert that Van Gogh suffered from comorbid illness (more than one illness or illness).
It is concluded that “he probably was diagnosed with an (probably Bipolar) mood disorder that was accompanied and (traits of) the Borderline Personality Disorder”. The condition was “worsened due to an alcohol dependence disorder that was accompanied by malnutrition which , later along with increasing psychological tensions to a panic in which the man cut off his ears”.
After the mutilation of his ear, Following the ear mutilation, he “developed two deliriums that could be caused by withdrawal from alcohol” between December 1888 and the beginning of February 1889 in the Arles hospital. Arles. The authors claim that it is possible that the initial brief psychosis that occurred in Arles following the ear trauma, at the time that the patient stopped drinking suddenly, “was actually an alcohol withdrawal in the form of delirium”. Then came several “severe depression episodes” which eventually led to his suicide in the month of July in 1890.
Since the death of Van Gogh, thousands of medical papers have been published regarding the condition, presenting many theories. In 2004, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam presented an exhibit and symposium called On the Edge of Mental Illness Van Gogh and his illness to try and help people gain a better understanding of the causes.
The museum had promised to publish a book that would include the results of the experts who took part in the symposium. However, since then, it has been difficult to agree on a final text, and there hasn’t been any. Voskuil is one from those Groningen authors, acknowledges that the discussions have “not produced enough agreement to draw definitive conclusions”.
The four medical experts participating at the Amsterdam symposium are now going on their own, writing their opinions in writing as part of the Groningen study. But , as the main author Nolen acknowledges, “our article certainly won’t be the last one on Van Gogh’s diseases”.
Art historians from the Van Gogh Museum have become more aware of the fact that medical diagnoses of the historical figures is filled with pitfalls. But, they are hopeful that the report they promised at the symposium in 2016 will eventually be published at the end of next year or 2022.