While his art is now highly renowned and eulogized, Vincent Willem Van Gogh spent his lifetime in considerable obscurity, fraught with numerous unprofitable endeavors, misfortunes and various illnesses leading up to his ultimate suicide at the age of 37. Years of extensive research into the possible ailments that plagued Van Gogh near the end of his life have revealed several factors that could have contributed to both his physical symptoms as well as the art style of his paintings.
Much of Van Gogh’s neuropsychiatric symptoms, most notably his episodes of seizures, began around the time of his move to the city of Arles in southern France. While the pathology of his seizures has been most famously described by Henri Gastaut (1) as a form of temporal lobe epilepsy, the cause of his disorder remains uncertain. While it is reasonable to point to his poor diet and excessive alcohol consumption as the primary factor for his symptoms, a look into Van Gogh’s substance abuse indicates the possibility of several other causes for his convulsions.
While researchers believe there to be very little evidence of digitalis use in Van Gogh’s life, the association, at the very least, provides a useful mnemonic for medical students to familiarize themselves with the vision changes related to digitalis toxicity.
Digitalis is said to purport its effects on vision through a similar mechanism. In this case, acting on Na+/K+ ATPase channels in the retina results in changes to the arrangement of rods and cones, thereby propagating the symptoms of ‘Xanthopsia’- a term used to describe a distortion in color perception with a tendency toward visualizing colored halos.
The presumption that Van Gogh was exposed to digitalis arose from the fact that, during those times, digitalis (extracted from the plant species, known commonly as the foxglove) may have been used to treat epilepsy. In fact, a plant resembling the foxglove was noted in Van Gogh’s portrait of his psychiatrist (Figure 4).
Worsening Mental State
Finally, great debate exists surrounding the cause for Van Gogh’s worsening mental state during the last years of his life. While everything from malnutrition to Acute Intermittent Porphyria has been implicated in the development of his cognitive decline, an interesting toxicological cause that may have been, at least in part, a culprit for his condition is lead poisoning.
Since most of the information obtained on Van Gogh’s illness is extracted from unreliable accounts and excerpts of letters he wrote toward the end of his life, any causal association, toxicological or otherwise, would ultimately be pure conjecture. At the very least, however, the relations outlined above provide an educational insight into the possibilities and mechanisms by which the substances prevalent in Van Gogh’s lifestyle could, in part, be contributory to his tendencies and even his psychiatric disease.
References and Further Reading
- Gastaut H: La maladie de Vincent van Gogh envisagée a la lumière des conceptions nouvelles sur l épilepsie psychomotrice. Ann Méd Psychol (Paris) 1956; 114:196–238
- Hemphill RE (1961): The illness of Vincent van Gogh. Proc Roy Soc Med 54: 1083–1088
- Simonetti G. Simon & Schuster’s Guide to Herbs and Spices. New York: Simon & Schuster; 1990. pp. 261–262
- Hold K M, Sirisoma S I, Ikeda T, Narahashi T, Casida J E. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. Alpha-thujone (the active component of absinthe): gamma-aminobutyric acid type A receptor modulation and metabolic detoxification. 2000;97:3826–3831
- Richter CP. Self-selection of diets. Essays in Biology. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press; 1943
- Vincent van Gogh: chemicals, crises, and creativity, Author: Wilfred Niels Arnold, Published by Birkhäuser, 1992
- Phelan WJ, 3rd. Camphor poisoning: over-the-counter dangers. Pediatrics 1976; 57:428–431, Klingensmith WR. Poisoning by camphor. J Am Med Assoc 1934; 102:2182–2183
- Pande TK, Pani S, Hiran S, Rao VVB, Shah H, Vishwanathan KA (1994) Turpentine poisoning: a case report. Forensic Sci Int 65: 47–49