Vincent Van Gogh
The creative icon of nineteenth century Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) was a person with eccentric personality and unstable mood. He suffered from frequent psychotic episodes in the last two years of his tumultuous life, and the genius took his life at a young age of 37.
Brief Life Story
Van Gogh hailed from a family of Dutch preachers. Both his father and paternal grandfather were in that career. There was no family history of mental illness. In his childhood Vincent was a moody, self-willed and sometimes annoying boy. His interest for art developed at an early age, and it was encouraged by his mother. After completing four years of education from a boarding school,at the age of 16 he started working as an intern for an art dealer in a firm set up by an uncle. After four years he shifted from Hauge to London and stayed there for two years.
First spell of depression appeared there when he failed in his first romantic infatuation at the age of 18. Vincent fell in love with his cousin Cornelia “Kee” Vos-Stricker, who was widowed recenly, and proposed marriage to her. Kee refused him with the words, ” No, nay, never” (“nooit, neen, nimmer“). For a few months he led a life in seclusion. He was morose and communicated rarely with his family.
He turned towards religion and spent next four years of his life as a preacher. He could not get a formal degree of theology and eventually worked as an evangelist in a very poor district of Belgium. There he was extremely charitable in nature giving away all his belongings among his brethren. He wore a look of dirt poor and his face turned black. His conduct was not appreciated by his superiors who considered it as against the dignity of a person menat for an ecclesiastic position and he was expelled from the church.
The next bout of depression set in at this time when he was 22. He left the religious beliefs and shifted to socialist ideals and agnostic views. His only concern at this time, as expressed in his letter to his brother Theo, was to be of some use to the humanity. At 27 he decided to be an artist and contribute to the world of arts. He continued his work through painting despite poor recognition and disturbed personal life.
After the first two depressive spells Vincent had a somewhat regular life. During his two years (1886-1888) stay in Paris he developed several symptoms such as
“episodes of sudden terror, peculiar epigastric sensations, and lapses
of consciousness. Observers reported occasions of an initial
tonic spasm of the hand and a peculiar stare, followed
by a confusional-amnestic phase.” (Blumer, 2002)
His habit of consuming absinthe, “an alcoholic beverage with convulsnat properties” was responsible for deteriorating Vincent’s condition. he became untidy and chaotic. His quick and furious temper led to many unpleasant incidents and made him undesirable in may places. He used to get involved in disputes with his brother Theo, who despite all remained sympathetic towards him.
His illness reached psychotic dimensions for the first time before the end of 1888, when he left for Arles in Southern France. After arriving at Arles he wrote,
“I was surely
about to suffer a stroke when I left Paris. It affected me
quite a bit when I had stopped drinking and smoking so
much, and as I began to think instead of knocking the
thoughts from my head. Good heavens, what despair and
how much fatigue I felt at that time”
Drinking Made Things Worse
However, soon he resumed his old habit of drinking. He used to cope his heightened emotionality by throwing himself completely into work and “if the storm within gets too loud, I take a glass
more to stun myself” . Vincent became more disturbed and the “Unpredictable mood shifts of dysphoria alternating with euphoria or with ‘indescribable anguish’ became more frequent”. Describing his state of mind he writes, ” 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.…and at times I have attacks
of melancholy and of atrocious remorse” . “There are moments when I am twisted by enthusiasm or madness or
prophecy, like a Greek oracle on the tripod. And then Ihave great readiness of speech”. He turned more irritable and violent and “frequently complained of feeling faint and of having ‘poor circulation’ and a ‘weak stomach’”.
Rage of Eccentricity
Van Hogh prepared a studio in South France and began working with fellow painter Paul Gauguin. However, the relationship between the two was not cordial. One day (23 December, 1888) he had an argument with Paul and in heat of the moment he took a razor and severed his earlobe. Then he wrapped it in a paper and presented to his favourite prostitute. A new research by Martin Bailey claims that the motivation for the act of self-mutilation was not his argument with Paul Gauguin, but the news that his brother and biggest supporter Theo was engaged. He was found lying unconscious in his room by a policeman next day and was hospitalized.”There he lapsed into an acute
psychotic state with agitation, hallucinations, and delusions that required 3 days of solitary confinement”. “At the hospital, Felix Rey, the young physician attending van Gogh, diagnosed epilepsy and prescribed potassium bromide. Within days, Van Gogh recovered from the psychoticstate. About 3 weeks after admission, he was able to
paint Self-Portrait With Bandaged Ear and Pipe, which shows him in serene composure.”
Van Vogh on His Mental State
During the following weeks, he wrote about his own mental state in letters to Theo and his sister Wilhelmina:
“The intolerable hallucinations have ceased, in fact havediminished to a simple nightmare, as a result of taking potassium bromide, I believe.” “I am rather well just now, except for a certain undercurrent of vague sadness difficult to explain.” “While I am absolutely calm at the present moment, I may easily relapse into a state of overexcitement on account of fresh mental emotion.” He also noted “three fainting fits without any plausible reason, and without retaining the slightest remembrance of what I felt”.
After returning from hospital he faced tremendous humiliation and was taunted publicly by young boys. He again had two more psychotic episode and was hospitalized. Upon his fourth attack he willingly entered the asylum at Saint-Rémy in May 1889 at the age of 29 years and stayed there for a year. There also he “experienced three psychotic relapseswith prominent amnesia”. “The last psychotic episode was the most protracted, lasting from February to April 1890; Van Gogh experienced terrifying hallucinations andsevere agitation.”
Vincent developed suicidal tendencies during his stay at Saint-Remy asylum. there he consumed turpentine, paint, or lamp oil. In may 1890 he was released from the asylum and declared cured. The artist moved from north of Paris to Auvers-sur-Oise. “He abstained from drinking by now and reminded free from seizures and confusional episodes”. However, he continued feeling extremely sad and lonely. On a Sunday “Vincent shot himself in the lower chest or upper belly in a field outside Auvers. ‘I couldn’t stick it any longer, so I shot myself,’ he told a friend. He died 2 days later”.
Burdened with severe mental illness Vincent van Gogh led a life full of distress, depression, hallucination, rage, and gloom. In between all these disrupting incidents he continued perfecting his art and worked for people.
About 3 weeks after admission to hospital followed by his cutting off his earlobe , he painted Self-Portrait With Bandaged Ear and Pipe, which shows him in serene composure.
“While at Saint-
Rémy asylum he produced some 300 works of art, among them several copies of religious scenes by older masters and the transcendental masterpiece Starry Night, which was painted in June 1889.” During the 70 days that he spent at Auvers, he completed 70 paintings and 30 drawings. A few of his last paintings were Wheat Field With Crows and Field With Stacks of Wheat.
Art historian Sven Loevgren describes The Starry Night as “an infinitely expressive picture which symbolizes the final absorption of the artist by the cosmos” and which “gives a never-to-be-forgotten sensation of standing on the threshold of eternity.”