The Passion of Vincent Van Gogh: How Mental Illness Transformed His Work

Psychiatrist Dr. Gail Saltz discusses the artistic qualities that make Vincent van Gogh legendary, and how his unusual personality, affected by a certain mental disorder, affected his work.

Gail Saltz: So most people are familiar with the idea that Vincent Van Gogh had mental illness. Different camps so to speak of mental illness almost like to claim Van Gogh as their own. So groups say, you know, oh he had schizophrenia. He had bipolar disorder. I would argue that Van Gogh who clearly had documented certain symptoms which ranged from being high irritable and at the same time what’s called very sticky. Stickiness is a psychiatric term which means you bond to people and sort of cling on and keep engaging with them in a very, very intense way. But when someone is both sticky and irritable it causes what happened to Van Gogh which is he would make these intense relationships with his brother for example, with Gaugin. So certain artists and with women that wouldn’t necessarily be suitable women for him. And at the same time he would then have these tremendous arguments and fights with them. So they were chaotic relationships and they were I’m very close, no I can’t have anything to do with you that really reeked terrible havoc in his life. In addition to those two symptoms he also suffered with extreme depression at various times, real mood lability. So sometimes he was intensely depressed. Other times he was seemingly more up.

And those go together along with something very interesting which is his paintings. So in his paintings we see intense color and a difference in terms of paintings that proceeded it which were more realistic. His paintings have this more abstract quality almost in some ways like a nightmarish quality to them. And that makes you think about again what was going on in his mind that he produced something like that. If you look at all of those qualities you think about temporal lobe epilepsy. Temporal lobe epilepsy is not like other forms of epilepsy where you have a seizure happen that you can see because it’s happening in the temporal lobe which is an emotional center of the brain. So that symptoms of temporal lobe epilepsy are this mood lability, stickiness, irritability, irascibility and so being a frustrating person and visual hallucinations. So seeing visually in your own mind intensities of color, heightened sensory visual stimuli like this essentially Starry Night or, you know, something that looked very dramatic, impressionistic. Or even visual hallucinations that alter what someone else looks like. So people who have temporal lobe epilepsy might look at your face and see distortions.

And of course when we look at some of Van Gogh’s paintings you often do see such distortions. The interesting thing is that ultimately when he was hospitalized in Remy the doctor actually thought he did have epilepsy and treated him for epilepsy. So there was even knowledge at that time that there could be this kind of illness causing his problems. And in fact this all fits with the time periods during which he becomes most ill which is when he would drink absinth. Absinth was an alcohol that was very in during various periods of Van Gogh’s life and it has a very high pure alcohol content which lowers the seizure threshold in the brain. So people who have epilepsy have to stay away from alcohol and are usually medicated with something that lower the seizure threshold of the brain. If one would drink absinth and have temporal lobe epilepsy you would expect a real rise in the amount of activity going on and more illness to the point even of being psychotic which did ultimately happen to Van Gogh in the incident where he had this big blow up with another artist and hurt his ear, you know, cut off a piece of his ear and so on. So these things, these pieces all essentially fit together to create this picture that is a likely diagnosis. Again one can never 100 percent retrospectively diagnose someone but these would all fit with temporal lobe epilepsy and they would also explain what might have informed some of Van Gogh’s work. And no doubt he is a brilliant, was a brilliant artist but some of his work may have been informed actually by his illness and that is what we see today.

Psychiatrist Dr. Gail Saltz discusses the artistic qualities that make Vincent van Gogh legendary, and how his unusual personality, affected by a certain mental disorder, affected his work. We know, for example, that Van Gogh was both highly disagreeable and "sticky," meaning he had a deep need for friendship despite his quarrelsome nature. His relationships with his brother and fellow painter Paul Gauguin, not to mention his various liaisons with women he wasn't suited for, take us a stop closer to understanding how Van Gogh's mental state affected his artistic output.

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