Were Van Gogh's Greatest Works The Result Of Delirium?

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Thursday, June 13, 2024

Were Van Gogh's Greatest Works The Result Of Delirium?

Few painters in the history of art have gone on to be as well-known or well-loved as Dutch master Vincent van Gogh. While he might have gone unappreciated for his entire lifetime, van Gogh found posthumous fame as art critics around the world decided that the post-impressionist painter had simply been ahead of his time, and that’s why the public didn’t immediately catch on to his style. While it would have been nice for him to get a few plaudits during his time on Earth, his paintings have subsequently gone on to sell for millions of dollars, and he’s recognized as one of the most influential artists ever to have lived. Is it possible, though, that the unique way he saw the world was down to little more than alcohol withdrawal and delirium?

The suggestion seems unfair and dismissive. Countless millions of people have suffered the effects of alcohol withdrawal over many hundreds of years, and none of them have gone on to be great painters - or at least haven't become great painters because of their addiction. Van Gogh's mastery of style, substance, shape, and color shouldn't be attributed to bleary eyes and a frayed sense of reality. On the other hand, is it possible that his condition might have been an influence on him? We already know that he was a very unique man, so might it be the case that his withdrawal from the dreaded drink affected him in a very unique way?

The fact that we’re even asking this question is telling. We’re discussing it here because the idea has been posited in mainstream newspapers, but it’s only in mainstream newspapers because the public’s fascination with van Gogh remains enormous even 130 years after his death. There’s currently a Netflix mini-series about his life in the world. There’s an online slots game bearing the painter’s likeness and some of his most famous works available at online slots websites like Roseslots.com. We have absolutely no idea what van Gogh himself would make of posthumously becoming an online slots star, but we know he enjoyed the occasional gamble while he was alive, so perhaps he would have liked the idea. The point is that not every painter’s work is used as a template for online slots. Not every painter is Vincent van Gogh. That’s why questions about his life and work are asked that wouldn’t be asked about the majority of other artists.

The new theory about delirium comes from a recent study into van Gogh's mental health in the years immediately prior to his death - which also happened to be the most productive years of his career. While the painter's mental health has always been understood to have been an issue for him - he wouldn't have cut off his own ear if it weren't - the role that alcohol played in his health has never been fully explored until now. According to the International Journal of Bipolar Disorders - the entity responsible for the study - van Gogh drank absinthe and wine heavily from 1886 until the day he died in 1890. While absinthe has often been said to have hallucinogenic properties, this is actually a myth. Van Gogh didn't create surreal, other-worldly works of art because he was experiencing visions after imbibing too much absinthe. The combined effect of wine and absinthe on his brain coupled with his sudden withdrawal from it, though, might have had a profound impact on the way he perceived the world around him.

While the Dutchman painted constantly for the past ten years of his life, most of the works he's best known for were created during his final three years - a period in which his drinking is said to have been at its most relentless and destructive. The majority of his self-portraits were painted during those 36 months, as was his entire series of sunflowers. Were it not for that three-year period, van Gogh might not have gone on to become famous at all, but they took a heavy toll on the artist. He was hospitalized three times between December 1888 and May 1889 and spent time at an asylum in Sant-Remy-de-Provence after the third incident. He was forced to remain sober during that stay and wrote to friends that he'd begun experiencing terrible hallucinations and vivid nightmares - both probably due to the sharp shock his body experienced when alcohol was no longer available to him.

The paper concludes by noting that delirium is a known side-effect of sudden alcohol withdrawal, and this may also have been the reason for his infamous ear incident, as well as the sudden jump in productivity that followed his release. As so often appears to have been the case in his life, pain and beauty were closely linked for van Gogh. While pointing at the idea of alcohol withdrawal, the paper rejects previous theories that he might have suffered from syphilis or schizophrenia. It's noted that no such suggestion appears in the records of any doctor who attended van Gogh, and nor does his behavior after the ear incident suggest an ongoing issue of that nature. Over nine hundred letters written two and from van Gogh, plus others written between his friends, were examined over the course of the study, thus giving the researchers the most intimate knowledge of his life possible.

The academics behind this research acknowledge that their work isn't perfect. There's no way of knowing whether van Gogh was telling the truth about his condition or conditions in any of the letters he sent to other people. He might have been downplaying his illnesses so as not to worry the people who cared about him. People will perform further research into this great painter's life in the future, and those people will probably reach differing conclusions because of that research. We'll almost certainly never know for sure whether van Gogh's greatest works were influenced by his drinking (or lack thereof), but there was undoubtedly something that allowed him to see the world in a way that nobody around him did. Whether affected by a battle with alcoholism or not, he was an artistic genius of the like that the world has not seen before or since, and he'll always remain a source of great fascination.

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