48x48 Poster Template - Loyola University Chicago

48x48 Poster Template - Loyola University Chicago

The Madness? Of Vincent Van Gogh
Kari Kronsbein
Loyola University Chicago

Abstract
The diagnosis for the mental disorder of Vincent Van Gogh has been
disputed among scholars since his premature death in 1890. The final
months of his life were marked with periods of erratic, violent behavior (or
what Van Gogh called attacks), but upon reading his letters and studying
the art that were produced during this period, it is clear that Van Goghs
mind was largely lucid during the time between these attacks. The various
symptoms which Van Gogh experienced, from extreme and frequent colic ,
to wrist drop, to convulsions and hallucinations, can be symptomatic of
many diseases and disorders, but from studying Van Goghs descriptions of
his own physical and mental state, I suggest that these symptoms are
largely characteristic of lead poisoning, although his death was not a direct
result of lead poisoning.

Other Suggested Diagnoses
It has been widely suggested that Van Gogh was an epileptic, due to a
family history of diagnosed epilepsy (a maternal aunt died of epilepsy), as
well as the diagnosis of Dr. Peyron. This diagnosis does not account for
all of the symptoms with which Van Gogh was plagued.
The idea of Van Gogh as a schizophrenic was suggested by Karl Jaspers
in 1922, but has since been proven obsolete by scholars.
Syphilis is a popular diagnosis for Van Goghs mental state, but madness
caused by syphilis does not generally occur in episodes, as was the
case with Van Gogh.
Other diagnoses include Menires syndrome, absinthe intoxication,
bipolar disorder, cycloid psychosis, sunstroke, and acute intermittent
porphyria.

Exposure to Lead
The painting technique frequently utilized by Van Gogh is known as impasto.
This technique involves an extremely heavy paint application in which the
brush strokes or marks of the pallet knife are usually visible (see Figure 1).
While this technique accounts for much of the expression in Van Goghs
paintings and is one of the most famous attributes of his paintings, it also
increased the amount of Van Goghs exposure to lead-based pigments.
Van Gogh frequently tipped his brushes when painting. Due to his rapid
painting technique, the pointed tip of Van Goghs brushes had to be reformed
to regain precision. Disregarding the health risk, Van Gogh would tip his
brushes using his mouth. It is unclear how much paint he would have ingested
in his lifetime using this method.
To create a more vivid foreground, Van Gogh would prime his canvas with
lead-based white pigments, and then sand his canvases to create a smooth
surface once the paint dried. This creates the hazard of leaded dust, the most
dangerous exposure.
Van Gogh was notorious for his lack of hygiene when it came to his painting.
He would spend weeks without washing his skin, which was often covered with
paint. Van Gogh was a heavy smoker, especially when painting. The paint on
his hands could have been easily ingested while smoking.

Symptoms of Lead Poisoning Experienced by Van Gogh
Convulsions: Swelling within the brain leads to convulsions like the
attacks from which Van Gogh suffered.
Pica: Van Gogh was twice caught ingesting his paints after an
uncontrollable urge to consume them.
Difficulty balancing
Vision impairment: Lead poisoning causes the swelling of the retinas,
which forces the appearance of rings around light sources, as often
portrayed in Van Goghs paintings.
Wrist drop: Van Gogh stated: the brush is almost falling
from my fingers (649).
Acute colic
Gastrointestinal spasms
Hallucinatory behavior
Minor anemia
Mental disorders

Effects of Lead Poisoning

Impasto Technique

Figure 1. Wheat Field with Cypresses. Van Gogh. 1899.
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Figure 2. Power Point Presenation. Alanah Fitch.

Documentation of Symptoms
In his first major attack, Van Gogh reportedly threatened his roommate, Paul
Gaugin, with a razor. In his delirium, he cut off his own ear and presented it to
a prostitute in a brothel. Van Gogh had no recollection of his actions during
his violent state.
Reportedly, his doctors diagnosed him as really only anemic, and told him
that I must feed myself up (484). Anemia is often an early symptom of lead
poisoning.
Van Gogh was often haunted by hallucinations: The unbearable
hallucinations have ceased, and have now reduced themselves to a simple
nightmare (487).
In February of 1887, Van Gogh was again hospitalized because he imagined
that people wanted to poison him. While in the hospital, he describes the
strange pattern of his illnesses: I feel quite normal so often that I should think
that if what I have is only a malady peculiar to this place, I must wait quietly till
it is over, even if it returns again (492).
In February of 1887, Van Gogh was again hospitalized because he imagined
that people wanted to poison him. While in the hospital, he describes the
strange pattern of his illnesses: I feel quite normal so often that I should think
that if what I have is only a malady peculiar to this place, I must wait quietly till
it is over, even if it returns again (492).
His fears about his illness at least show an awareness of his disease,
something unusual for those who suffer from madness caused by syphilis or
those plagued by schizophrenia: These repeated and unexpected agitations,
if they should continue, may change a passing and momentary mental
disturbance into a chronic disease (496).
Van Gogh describes his mood swings and his decline into depression: There
have been moods of indescribable mental anguish (497). I am well now,
except for a certain undercurrent of vague sadness difficult to define (499).
Van Gogh entered the asylum at Saint-Rmy, not because of his madness, but
because his care would be easier in the facility. While in the asylum, Van Gogh
was relieved that he was not the only one who suffered from hallucinations: I
gather from others that they have heard during their attacks strange sounds
and voices, as I have, and that to their eyes too things seemed to be
changing. There is someone here who has been shouting and talking as I
do all the time (511).
The intensity of Van Goghs episodes is described, and Reys diagnosis of
epilepsy is noted: The anguish and suffering are no joke once you are caught
by an attack. Most epileptics bite their tongue and wound themselves. Rey told
me that he had seen a case where someone had wounded himself as I did, in
the ear (512).
The increase in Van Goghs hygiene coincides with improved gastrointestinal
function: I am having a bath now twice a week, and stay in it two hours; my
stomach is infinitely better than it was a year ago (512).
Van Goghs anguish about his attacks are described: 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. (Fell 155)
References
Erickson, K. P. (1998). At Eternity's Gate: The Spiritual Vision of Vincent Van Gogh. Grand
Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Fell, D. (2004). Van Gogh's Women. New York: Carrol & Graff Publishers.
Fitch, A. (2004). Sublime Lead: The Biography of a 5000 Year Toxic
Love Affair. Retrieved
December 11, 2008, from http://www.luc.edu/faculty/afitch/Lead%20and%20Humanity.htm
Stone, I. (Ed.). (n.d.). Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh. Garden City:
Doubleday & Company, Inc.
Van Gogh, Vincent. Van Gogh's Letters. Ed. Robert Harrison. 2008. US Department of Education.
11 Dec. 2008 .

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