Van Gogh's Deliriums Tied to Alcohol Withdrawal

Forced withdrawal in hospital may have triggered 'unbearable hallucinations'
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 8, 2020 1:00 PM CST
Van Gogh's Deliriums Tied to Alcohol Withdrawal
Vincent Van Gogh's "Self-Portrait With Bandaged Ear," completed in 1889.   (Wikimedia)

More than a century after his death, people remain fascinated with Vincent Van Gogh's life, particularly the last few years, which were marked by mental illness. Indeed, a new study focusing on that most-productive period suggests he didn't have schizophrenia but may have been suffering from delirium linked to alcohol withdrawal. After cutting off his ear, Van Gogh was hospitalized three times in Arles, France, between December 1888 and May 1889, when he was moved to an asylum in Saint-Remy-de-Provence. He described a kind of "madness" that included "unbearable hallucinations," anxiety, and nightmares during two of the stays, per the Guardian. Researchers—who interviewed experts on Van Gogh's letters, finding evidence of an alcohol dependence—note "abrupt stopping with excessive alcohol consumption can lead to withdrawal phenomena, including a delirium."

Van Gogh had other issues. He showed signs of a bipolar mood disorder and borderline personality disorder. This "likely worsened through an alcohol use disorder combined with malnutrition, which then led, in combination with rising psychosocial tensions, to a crisis in which he cut off his ear," the authors write in the International Journal of Bipolar Disorders. They note the two apparent withdrawal deliriums were followed by "severe depressive episodes ... from which he did not fully recover, finally leading to his suicide" in 1890. But as the artist was diagnosed with focal epilepsy, which may have triggered delusions, they're cautious in their conclusion, per CNN. As Van Gogh expert Martin Bailey tells Artnet News, this paper "is certainly important and based on a serious study of the artist's symptoms. But it is unlikely to be the last word on this challenging question." (We now know the spot where Van Gogh painted his last work.)

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