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Vincent Van Gogh

Diseases exist to remind us that we are not made of wood, and it seems to me this is the bright side of it all
Vincent: January 1890Vincent - self portrait

Vincent Van Gogh was one of the greatest artists the world has seen. His paintings document the life of a driven but fragile artist who experienced bouts of ill health throughout his painting life. Speculation about the health of Vincent Van Gogh includes a diagnosis of epilepsy. Vincent was most likely affected by Complex Partial seizures, which include sensory disturbances.

A doctor who treated him noted that these seizures involved

'acute mania with hallucinations of sight and hearing'

A diagnosis of epilepsy was made by two seperate doctors who treated him.
May 8th 1889 - Monthly notes by the asylum physician in the asylum book

"the hallucinations of sight and hearing "terrified" the patient and "he retains only a vague memory (of the ear cutting incident) and cannot explain it.  He tells that one of his mother's sisters was epileptic, and that there are several cases in the family" Dr Peyron, another physician involved in his care noted,

"I believe that monsieur Van Gogh is subject to epileptic fits at very great intervals."

Starry night detailAn example of his epilepsy occurred when Vincent was painting a landscape in the fields of St Paul de Mausole. He felt a pressure on his head which tightened like a metal band.  Trembling he fell to the ground, his body went rigid a scream coming from his lips.  Then everything went dark.  He was carried back to St Remy, where he was in a state of agitated confusion not really knowing who he was for three weeks. 
Vincent wrote to Theo his brother,

'For many days I have been completely lost as in Arles, as badly if not worse, and one can only presume these attacks will return in the future; it is abominable....this latest attack, dear brother, came upon me in the fields when I was painting on a windy day.'

Following the famous ear-cutting incident, (another possible seizure, in which Van Gogh severed part of his ear-lobe and was hospitalised), he wrote to his friend the painter, Paul Gaugin,

"In my mental or nervous fever, or madness - I am not too sure how to put it or what to call it - my thoughts sailed over many seas.  I even dreamed of the phantom Dutch ship and of Le Horla, and it seems that, while thinking what the woman  rocking  the cradle  sang to rock the sailors to sleep, I, who on occasions cannot sing a note, came out with an old nursery tune, something I had tried to express in an arrangement of colours before I fell ill, because I don't know the music of Berlioz."

Further extracts from his diaries, throw some small but further light on his epilepsy

"there are moments when I am wrenched by enthusiasm or madness or prophesy like a Greek Oracle."

"I have had in all four great crises during which  I didn't know what I said, what I wanted, and what I did... I had previously had three feinting fits without any plausible reason, and without retaining the slightest remembrance of what I felt."

"I am unable to describe exactly what is the matter with me; now and then there are horible fits of anxiety, apparently without cause, or otherwise a feeling of emptiness and fatigue in the head."

What are Complex Partial seizures?


Further recommended reading

Chemicals, crises and creativity
Wilfred Niels Arnold

Further recommended reading

Chemicals, crises and creativity
Wilfred Niels Arnold