Van Gogh-ing Insane

In the English classes that I take at Emory, there often comes a discussion about what influence, if any, the life of the artist should have on our interpretation of the source material. In most instances, it is important to allow the work to speak for itself. JK Rowling has made headlines recently for angering fans by making proclamations about the Harry Potter universe which are not evident in the books. But sometimes the life and the art are intertwined; Sylvia Plath’s poetry for example is deeply personal, and it is difficult to avoid factoring in her suicide when discussing it. Of all the cases in which the life of an artist and their art are connected, the story of Vincent Van Gogh is probably the most famous. A brilliant painter, unappreciated in his time, struggles with his sanity, cuts his own ear off, and dies under mysterious and violent circumstances. This past week I have gotten the chance to see some of Van Gogh’s paintings first hand and to wander the town of Arles where he worked, but unfortunately following in his footsteps has not yielded much clarity. Van Gogh’s art speaks for itself, but a deep appreciation — and, I admit, some morbid curiosity — drove me to take a closer look.

Garten des Hospitals en Arles by Van Gogh.

Yours truly in the above garden, trying to figure out how it got so yellow.

Over the decades, a number of scientists have applied modern medical knowledge and a fair deal of detective work to try to better understand Van Gogh the man and his paintings. One study suggests that the increased amount of yellow in Van Gogh’s later work was the result of digitalis intoxication, a side effect of the foxglove plant he was prescribed to treat his epilepsy. Digitalis intoxication can cause yellow spots in an individual’s field of vision (Lee, 1981).

Van Gogh’s painting of Dr. Gachet, seen with the foxglove plant he likely treated the artist with. I was going to buy it, but I’m about $82 million dollars short.

It is not sound medical practice to posthumously diagnose a patient, and so much of what we know about Van Gogh’s mental health is based on records from his prolonged hospitalization in Arles. Van Gogh was diagnosed and treated for epilepsy, a disease that was likely made worse by his substance abuse (Lee, 1981). It is believed that Van Gogh may have suffered from an additional mental illness, as his bouts of mania and depression bear striking similarity to bipolar disorder (The Van Gogh Gallery: Vincent Van Gogh’s Mental Health; Lee, 1981). However, a diagnosis of epilepsy does account for many of the curious features in the artist’s work.

Temporal lobe epilepsy is a form of refractory focal epilepsy (Allone et al., 2017). In this version of epilepsy, neuronal misfiring in temporal lobe structures start seizures which may or may not spread throughout the brain (Engel, 1996; Engel 2001). This is likely the form of epilepsy which Van Gogh had, as it is the most common form of epilepsy and temporal lobe structures deal with auditory processing (Van Gogh suffered from auditory hallucinations) and object recognition (Engel, 2001). Interestingly, hallucinations or dream-like cognitive states are not uncommon in patients with the disease (Allone et al., 2017). One of the defining features of Van Gogh’s art is the dream-like blurring of objects; in the above painting of Dr. Gachet, the background and the doctor himself are distorted into surreal representations of the subject matter. This effect is common in impressionist paintings, but it is more pronounced in Van Gogh’s work than in most other’s. This artistic style may have been more potent for Van Gogh if he painted while in a state of delirium or if he had sustained damage to an area of the temporal lobe implicated in object recognition. The cognitive impairments arising from severe temporal lobe epilepsy can manifest in different ways. Patients commonly report memory deficits, but one feature may be a negative effect on “praxis”, defined as one’s ability to perform skilled actions like painting (Allone et al., 2017). Between hallucinations and delirium, seizures, brain damage, and loss of praxis one can begin to see why Van Gogh’s perception of the world differs so much from that of the average person.

Taken together, Van Gogh’s epilepsy and treatment regimen can begin to account for some of the features of his art. The longer temporal lobe epilepsy persists, the more severe the cognitive impairments associated with the disease become, which explains why Van Gogh’s symptoms seem to have worsened over time (Allone et al., 2017). Epileptic activity may also explain Van Gogh’s hallucinations and his unorthodox depiction of objects in his paintings. Ironically, the treatment it is thought Van Gogh was prescribed can also negatively impact vision and cognition, even causing delirium in certain cases (Lee, 1981).

Wandering around Arles, I was struck by the notion that I didn’t see the town in the same way Van Gogh did. There is a gap between the landmarks I saw and his paintings of them that I found difficult to reconcile. I now know that only part of that gap should be attributed to artistic representation; Van Gogh’s world may have been one of blurred images, vibrant colors, and distorted objects. I believe that part of the function of art is to help the viewer see the world’s beauty in a different way, and Van Gogh certainly accomplishes that in all of his paintings. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if the artist’s masterpieces were fueled by imagination or misfiring neurons. The world is lucky that one man’s tragic suffering resulted in such incredible works of art, and I’m lucky to have been able to take a step closer to understanding that man’s incredible mind.

Works Cited

Allone C, Buono VL, Corallo F, Pisani LR, Pollicino P, Bramanti P, and Marino S (2017) Neuroimaging and cognitive functions in temporal lobe epilepsy: A review of the literature. Journal of the Neurological Sciences 381:7-15

Engel J (1996) Introduction to temporal lobe epilepsy. Epilepsy Research 26: 141-150

Engel J (2001) A Proposed Diagnostic Scheme for People with Epileptic Seizures and with Epilepsy: Report of the ILAE Task Force on Classification and Terminology. Epilepsia 42(6): 796-803

Lee TC (1981) Van Gogh’s Vision: Digitalis Intoxication? The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) 245(7):727-729

The Van Gogh Gallery: Vincent Van Gogh Biography.

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