Scientists have given a new diagnosis to Vincent Van Gogh. According to experts, the painter suffered from several disorders, including attacks of delirium tremens. At the same time, the authors call the talk that the genius was allegedly sick with syphilis or schizophrenia as groundless.
Details are set out in a scientific article published in the International Journal of Bipolar Disorders.
Talent and madness
Contemporary art critics consider Vincent Van Gogh to be a great artist. Moreover, he was a strong and courageous man. Never recognized during his lifetime, he lived from hand to mouth for many years, but found the strength to work and hope. In his numerous letters to his brother Theo Van Gogh, the painter appears as a man of an extraordinary mind, deeply feeling beauty and passionately loving his loved ones.
But this genius has definitely never been a balanced person. In 1888, he attacked his friend Gauguin with a razor (at least according to the testimony of the latter). On the same night, Van Gogh cut off a part of his auricle and presented it to the brothel cleaner, after which he was naturally placed in a psychiatric clinic.
In subsequent years, the artist also had serious mental problems. He was hospitalized twice more, which, however, did not prevent him from working productively. In 1890, at the age of 37, Vincent Van Gogh committed suicide.
What mental illness struck the painter and, very likely, brought him to the grave? Experts never tire of arguing about this. Now psychiatrists from the Netherlands (by the way, the artist’s homeland) have made a new attempt to understand his condition. To do this, they asked the necessary questions to three art historians who are well acquainted with Van Gogh’s biography through his letters and other sources.
Note that, by strict medical standards, a psychiatric diagnosis can only be made by personal examination. It is clear that today’s doctors do not have such an opportunity. Therefore, the authors make a reservation that their conclusions cannot be called final. And yet, experts made fairly reasonable assumptions about what the artist was sick with.
According to their findings, from a young age, Van Gogh suffered from a kind of mood disorder (most likely bipolar). In addition, he displayed traits typical of borderline personality disorder .
The artist’s vulnerable psyche could not get stronger from many years of constant malnutrition, uncertainty about the future and strained relations with others. In addition, in the last four years of his life, the genius greatly abused alcohol. All this taken together, according to experts, led to a breakdown that ended in self-harm.
Once in the hospital after this event, Van Gogh experienced hallucinations, unbearable anxiety, eerie nightmares and other unpleasant symptoms. It is generally believed that this was a continuation of the same fit of insanity in which the artist cut off his ear. But this time, the researchers concluded that the reason was … the hospitalization itself. More precisely, the fact that the painter, once in the hospital, was forced to give up alcohol. And his abrupt withdrawal from alcohol caused an episode of alcoholic delirium, also known as delirium tremens.
Let us remind you that this condition develops in persons suffering from severe alcoholism. The usual reason for this is abrupt cessation of alcohol use.
The biochemical mechanism of alcoholic delirium is still being clarified. But the most common version is as follows. It is known that large doses of alcohol have a strong inhibitory effect on the nervous system. So that the work of the brain simply does not stop, the body pumps it with stimulant substances of its own manufacture. And then the patient suddenly stops drinking. The body, however, does not have time to reorganize and continues to produce exciting substances on an industrial scale. And without the inhibitory effect of alcohol, the psyche of the patient under the influence of these internal stimulants is literally peddling.
This is what Dutch psychiatrists believe happened to Van Gogh. At least the picture of symptoms, as far as it was possible to establish, is typical of alcoholic delirium.
In addition, starting in 1886, the artist became increasingly addicted to alcohol. It is possible that he was in a long binge before hurting himself. And within the walls of the hospital, his alcoholic epic probably ended abruptly. It is not surprising that in such a situation the genius suffering from alcoholism had an episode of delirium tremens. And then medicine could not offer him any antipsychotic drugs (they were invented only in the second half of the XX century). The doctors simply had nothing to stop the attack.
Van Gogh had another psychotic episode, which the authors also attribute to alcoholic delirium. These two attacks, according to experts, were followed by severe depression. This is also very plausible: in such circumstances, a completely healthy person could plunge into despondency, and after all, Van Gogh, according to experts, always suffered from a mood disorder. The genius never fully recovered from this depression, and she ultimately drove him to suicide.
However, psychiatrists do not discount the diagnosis given to the artist by the attending physician: epilepsy. In some forms of this disease, hallucinations occur (especially if the focus of activity is located in the temporal lobe of the cerebral cortex) and other psychotic symptoms. In this case, the characteristic seizures may not be observed. However, the doctors of the 19th century, of course, could not make an electroencephalogram to the patient, so their conclusions should not be taken too seriously.
So, the researchers gave Van Gogh a whole bunch of possible diagnoses. It is a mood disorder with traits of borderline personality disorder that has been exacerbated by difficult life circumstances and alcoholism with delirium tremens. As a result, the genius developed a depression that cut short his life.
At the same time, experts rejected a number of previously stated hypotheses. For example, they consider it unlikely that the artist had schizophrenia.
First, until the age of 35, the painter did not show any psychotic symptoms, while schizophrenia usually manifests itself at a young age. Second, even after the self-mutilation incident, episodes of psychosis were rare, and there was no sign of “great psychiatry” in between.
Finally, this disease is characterized by a growing emotional coldness. The patient seems to plunge into himself, losing interest in the outside world and reacting only to the simplest stimuli. Nothing of the kind happened to Van Gogh.
The authors also consider the version that the genius had syphilis as untenable. Yes, this ailment can really drive a person crazy. But it also has much more characteristic symptoms, which were well known at the end of the 19th century. It is unlikely that the doctors who treated the artist would not notice syphilis. But the surviving reports contain no hint of this diagnosis.
Finally, the authors did not find any evidence for the theory that Van Gogh was poisoned by carbon monoxide (at one time such a version was also expressed).
Of course, we are unlikely to ever know for certain what happened to the great painter. However, no medical reports can influence the assessment of his outstanding talent.