Vincent’s Illness

Gauguin Portrait of Vincent Van Gogh - painter of Sunflowers - Arles early December - 1888

Gauguin Portrait of Vincent Van Gogh – painter of Sunflowers – Arles early December – 1888

Vincent’s illness is the subject of debate to this day.  During his time, his condition was described as a form of epilepsy, a broad and vague diagnosis of the times.  He was afflicted with these episodes at least 6 documented times after his first break in Arles involving Gauguin and a prostitute and his infamous ear injury.  The episodes all occurred within the last 18 months of his 39 year life. They lasted for about a week on four occasions and each time his recovery was so swift that doctors and concerned friends and family were surprised.  There were also two exceptionally longer attacks, the first a crushing 45 day attack documented in Saint Remy de Provence in the summer of 1889 and then another two month long episode which left him incapacitated in the spring of 1890, a month before he left the Saint Paul asylum for good.

When incapacitated Vincent might remain speechless for days or weeks at a time.  He heard voices and would refuse food or sleep for days during some attacks.  Some episodes brought on hallucinations and dreams which terrified him.   He tried to drink turpentine and consume his paint out of the tubes he used for his canvases during some attacks.  He contemplated suicide during some of the episodes.

Vincent was a loner even as a young boy and throughout his life would go for very long walks observing and perhaps seeking the essence of the nature around him.  His family had a history of mental illness and more than half of the Van Gogh’s of Vincent’s generation were afflicted with ailments causing institutionalization or premature death. He suffered from stomach ailments throughout his life and went through long periods of malnourishment, mostly self imposed.  He also contracted Gonorrhea and was hospitalized in The Hague, Netherlands for over 20 days after a complication.  At some point both he and his brother Theo contracted syphillis.

Vincent also consumed wine and absinthe with abandon as did most of his bohemian painting contemporaries in 1880’s Paris – Toulouse Lautrec, Paul Signac, George Seuraut, Louis Anquetin, Bernard Guillamin, Camille and Lucien Pissarro, Emile Bernard and others.  He was known for his enraged nature when caught up in arguing the evolution of painting, a subject of great debate in the cabarets and drinking establishments of Montmartre.  To illustrate the correctness of his position in arguing with Russell, an Australian impressionist of great talent, he once famously tore off his shirt to show his back muscles at the angle of a painted image and how the piece should have been done.  He was a brilliant and well read and well schooled man for his time.  His brother being an art dealer who could sell the works of his contemporaries when no one else was interested did not hurt his standing in social circles.  But Vincent never quite fit in it seems, he was tolerated at best by most and quietly ridiculed when he wasn’t around.

Vincent moved from Paris to Arles to get away from the unhealthy habits around every corner tempting him in Montmartre daily. He found a place to live and set up a studio in which he could paint with humble quarters for himself and a larger room left vacant in hopes an artist or two would join him to breach the next advancement in art.  His first well known and documented break from reality happens as this dream of artists working together begins to fall apart.

He has a violent and drunken argument with Paul Gauguin late in the evening in the town of Arles in December of 1888 which resulted in his first involuntary confinement.   According to Gauguin, Vincent came at him with a straight razor from behind as he walked through a park by their house after an earlier heated argument .  Gauguin’s account is questioned for its accuracy by many and other theories have surfaced as to how Vincent’s ear lobe was severed.  Some now think Gauguin might have sliced it off and Vincent covered for him to save his reputation and friendship.  Their relationship had been strained to the breaking point over the two months they lived together in Arles, that cannot be denied.  The first month went well but the second was peppered with disagreement and Gauguin threatening to leave.

Vincent was found by police in his bed nearly unconscious from loss of blood.  He was admitted to the hospital in Arles and diagnosed as having experienced a psychotic episode.  Vincent said he could remember nothing of the night.  After a week in the hospital in Arles, Vincent was lucid and showed no signs of the instability which had crippled him just days before.

Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear - Arles January 1889 Winter

Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear – Arles January 1889 Winter

He left the hospital Dieu in the first week of January and went back to the Yellow House but Gauguin was gone.  And he was even more ridiculed by the youth and citizenry of Arles for being a crazy red-headed dutchman in their town.  After a couple of weeks, he had another psychotic break after imagining someone was trying to poison him and he required ten days of hospitalization.  He again recovered and was released with no signs of his break.  80 citizens of Arles petitioned the mayor to have Vincent locked up as they felt he was a danger to them.  The mayor complied and Vincent was hospitalized under authority at the Hospital Dieu in Arles.

The Ward in the Hospital at Arles - May 1, 1889 Spring

The Ward in the Hospital at Arles – May 1, 1889 Spring

At first, Vincent is refused his paints, canvas, pipe and tobacco.  Gradually the authorities allow him to work again and he tries to convince his attendants and the police that his good behavior over time with force his release.  In the last days of March, Vincent was able to take walks outside the hospital again and was pleased to find out that none of his immediate neighbors participated in the petition for his confinement.  He is visited by Paul Signac at Theo’s request and the two get into the Yellow House and review Vincent’s latest canvases.  After wanting to drink a can of turpentine on the table of the yellow house, Signac returns Vincent to the hospital that evening.  Vincent could not at this time be trusted on his own recognizance and he knew he needed help and did not want to trouble his brother…

Trees in the Garden of Saint-Paul Hospital - October 7 1889 St Remy Autumn

Trees in the Garden of Saint-Paul Hospital – October 7 1889 St Remy Autumn

Pastor Salles helps Vincent to decide to choose nearby Saint Remy de Provence and the Saint Paul asylum there as a good place to receive the day to day care Vincent needs.  He confides the priest and Theo that he lacks the courage at present to live with the citizenry.  On the 9th of May, Pastor Salles rides out with Vincent and his belongings and helps him move in to Saint Paul de Mausole.  While in his first weeks of voluntary confinement, he writes his brother in late May of 1889:

“However, the landscape of St-Rémy is very beautiful, and little by little I’m probably going to make trips into it. But staying here as I am, the doctor has naturally been in a better position to see what was wrong, and will, I dare hope, be more reassured that he can let me paint.
I assure you that I’m very well here, and that for the time being I see no reason at all to come and board in Paris or its surroundings. I have a little room with grey-green paper with two water-green curtains with designs of very pale roses enlivened with thin lines of blood-red. These curtains, probably the leftovers of a ruined, deceased rich man, are very pretty in design. Probably from the same source comes a very worn armchair covered with a tapestry flecked in the manner of a Diaz or a Monticelli, red-brown, pink, creamy white, black, forget-me-not blue and bottle green.
Through the iron-barred window I can make out a square of wheat in an enclosure, a perspective in the manner of Van Goyen, above which in the morning I see the sun rise in its glory. With this — as there are more than 30 empty rooms — I have another room in which to work.
The food is so-so. It smells naturally a little musty, as in a cockroach-ridden restaurant in Paris or a boarding school. As these unfortunates do absolutely nothing (not a book, nothing to distract them but a game of boules and a game of draughts) they have no other daily distraction than to stuff themselves with chickpeas, haricot beans, lentils and other groceries and colonial foodstuffs by the regulated quantities and at fixed times.
As the digestion of these commodities presents certain difficulties, they thus fill their days in a manner as inoffensive as it’s cheap. But joking apart, the fear of madness passes from me considerably upon seeing from close at hand those who are affected with it, as I may very easily be in the future.
Before I had some repulsion for these beings, and it was something distressing for me to have to reflect that so many people of our profession, Troyon,15 Marchal,16 Meryon,17 Jundt,18 M. Maris,19 Monticelli,20 a host of others, had ended up like that. I wasn’t even able to picture them in the least in that state. Well, now I think of all this without fear, i.e. I find it no more atrocious than if these people had snuffed it of something else, of consumption or syphilis, for example.
These artists, I see them take on their serene bearing again, and do you think it’s a small thing to rediscover ancient members of the profession. Joking apart, that’s what I’m profoundly grateful for. For although there are some who howl or usually rave, here there is much true friendship that they have for each other. They say, one must suffer others for the others to suffer us, and other very true reasonings that they thus put into practice. And between ourselves we understand each other very well, I can, for example, chat sometimes with one who doesn’t reply except in incoherent sounds, because he isn’t afraid of me.
If someone has some crisis the others look after him, and intervene so that he doesn’t harm himself.The same for those who have the mania of often getting angry. Old regulars of the menagerie run up and separate the fighters, if there is a fight. It’s true that there are some who are in a more serious condition, whether they be filthy, or dangerous. These are in another courtyard.

Now I take a bath twice a week, and stay in it for 2 hours,23 then my stomach is infinitely better than a year ago, so I only have to continue, as far as I know. I think I’ll spend less here than elsewhere, since here I still have work on my plate, for nature is beautiful.

My hope would be that at the end of a year I’ll know better than now what I can do and what I want. Then, little by little, an idea will come to me for beginning again. Coming back to Paris or anywhere at the moment doesn’t appeal to me at all, I feel that I’m in the right place here. In my opinion, what most of those who have been here for years are suffering from is an extreme sluggishness. Now, my work will preserve me from that to a certain extent.
The room where we stay on rainy days is like a 3rd-class waiting room in some stagnant village, all the more so since there are honourable madmen who always wear a hat, spectacles and travelling clothes and carry a cane, almost like at the seaside, and who represent the passengers there.

I’m obliged to ask you for some more colours, and especially some canvas. When I send you the 4 canvases of the garden25 I have on the go you’ll see that, considering that life happens above all in the garden, it isn’t so sad. Yesterday I drew a very large, rather rare night moth there which is called the death’s head, its coloration astonishingly distinguished: black, grey, white, shaded, and with glints of carmine or vaguely tending towards olive green; it’s very big.

To paint it I would have had to kill it, and that would have been a shame since the animal was so beautiful.  I’ll send you the drawing of it with a few other drawings of plants.
You could take the canvases which are dry enough at Tanguy’s or at your place off the stretching frames and then put the new ones you consider worthy of it onto these stretching frames. Gauguin must be able to give you the address of a liner for the Bedroom who won’t be expensive. This I imagine must be a 5-franc restoration, if it’s more then don’t have it done, I don’t think that Gauguin paid more when he quite often had canvases of his own, Cézanne or Pissarro lined.

Speaking of my condition, I’m still so grateful for yet another thing. I observe in others that, like me, they too have heard sounds and strange voices during their crises, that things also appeared to change before their eyes. And that softens the horror that I retained at first of the crisis I had, and which when it comes to you unexpectedly, cannot but frighten you beyond measure.

Once one knows that it’s part of the illness one takes it like other things. Had I not seen other mad people at close hand I wouldn’t have been able to rid myself of thinking about it all the time. For the sufferings of anguish aren’t funny when you’re caught in a crisis. Most epileptics bite their tongues and injure them. Rey told me that he had known a case where someone had injured his ear as I did, and I believe I’ve heard a doctor here who came to see me with the director say that he too had seen it before.

I dare to believe that once one knows what it is, once one is aware of one’s state and of possibly being subject to crises, that then one can do something about it oneself so as not to be caught so much unawares by the anguish or the terror. Now, this has been diminishing for 5 months, I have good hope of getting over it, or at least of not having crises of such force. There’s one person here who has been shouting and always talking, like me, for a fortnight, he thinks he hears voices and words in the echo of the corridors, probably because the auditory nerve is sick and too sensitive, and with me it was both the sight and the hearing at the same time which, according to what Rey said one day, is usual at the beginning of epilepsy. 

Now the shock had been such that it disgusted me even to move, and nothing would have been so agreeable to me as never to wake up again. At present this horror of life is already less pronounced, and the melancholy less acute. But I still have absolutely no will, hardly any desires or none, and everything that has to do with ordinary life, the desire for example to see friends again, about whom I think however, almost nil. That’s why I’m not yet at the point where I ought to leave here soon, I would still have melancholy for everything. And it’s even only in these very last days that the repulsion for life has changed quite radically. There’s still a way to go from there to will and action.
It’s a shame that you yourself are still condemned to Paris, and that you never see the countryside other than that around Paris.
I think that it’s no more unfortunate for me to be in the company where I am than for you always the fateful things at Goupil & Cie. From that point of view we’re quite equal. For only in part can you act in accordance with your ideas. Since, however, we have once got used to these inconveniences, it becomes second nature.
I think that although the paintings cost canvas, paint &c., at the end of the month, however, it’s more advantageous to spend a little more thus, and to make them with what I’ve learned in total, than to abandon them while one would have to pay for board and lodging all the same anyway. And that’s why I’m making them. So this month I have 4 no. 30 canvases and two or three drawings.
But no matter what one does, the question of money is always there like the enemy before the troops, and one can’t deny it or forget it.  I retain my duties in that respect as much as anyone. And perhaps some day I’ll be in a position to repay all that I’ve spent, because I consider that what I’ve spent is, if not taken from you at least taken from the family, so consequently I’ve produced paintings and I’ll do more.
That is to act as you too act yourself. If I had private means, perhaps my mind would be freer to do art for art’s sake, now I content myself with believing that in working assiduously even so, without thinking of it one perhaps makes some progress.
Here are the colours I would need


3 emerald green large tubes.
2 cobalt
1 ultramarine
1 orange lead
6 zinc white
5 metres canvas


Thanking you for your kind letter, I shake your hand warmly, as well as your wife’s.


Ever yours,

To Theo. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, on or about Thursday, 23 May 1889


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