UCLA Psychiatrist Gives His Take on Van Gogh’s Illness

Evidence of Vincent van Gogh’s troubled mind can be seen in the genius’s brush strokes.

The proof is in the dark colors of “The Potato Eaters,” the globs of paint on “Wheatfield with Reaper” and in his serene yet solemn image in “Self Portrait with Pipe and Bandaged Ear.”

It doesn’t take an artist to see it.

It takes a doctor.

And Dr. Peter Whybrow is among the latest to diagnose one of the greatest artistic luminaries of the past 150 years.

Whybrow, director of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, presented van Gogh’s life as a case study to a packed auditorium of Kern Medical Center staff Wednesday.

His diagnosis: manic depression.

“Vincent was not a great artist because he had manic depressive disorder,” he said. “But that may have shifted how he looked at painting.”

Manic depression, also known as bipolar disorder, is characterized by periods of excitability alternating with depression, according to the National Institutes of Health. People with this disorder can experience hyperactivity, lack of self-control, delusions of grandeur, reckless behavior, sexual promiscuity, difficulty concentrating, little need for sleep and poor control of their temper.

Whybrow studied the volumes of letters from the painter to his family, along with his paintings, and believes van Gogh suffered 13 psychotic episodes that lasted from one week to two months.

“One thing that manic depression does is break down the boundaries” of the mind, Whybrow said.

The Dutch painter first started experiencing the extreme ups and downs when he moved to London in 1874 as a curator, Whybrow said.

Van Gogh wrote that the gallery’s paintings provoked “violent emotion to the point of rapture.”

His emotions then plummeted after being rejected by Ursula, his landlady’s daughter.

To lift his spirits, van Gogh left London and pursued religion, flagellating himself with a cudgel or whip, Whybrow said.

He worked as an evangelist in the Borinage mining country of Belgium, and a few years after his younger brother, Theo, promises to financially support his painting, his psychosis shows up on the canvas.

His paintings from 1883 to 1886, which include “The Potato Eaters” and “Farmhouses Near Hoogeveen” are painted in dark browns, almost sepia tone. “The Flying Fox,” which shows a bat, wings spread, particularly depicts his melancholy, Whybrow said.

That changed after van Gogh moved to Paris with Theo in 1886, where he met several Impressionist painters. His mood lifted, which can be seen in the brightness of the palette, like in “Boulevard de Clichy.” He gave a sense of life to his work, like the running water in “Banks of the Seine.”

He drank absinthe, a bitter, green liqueur that can cause hallucinations and impulsive violence, Whybrow said, and probably exacerbated his illness.

“It seems as if he were two persons; one marvelously gifted, tender and refined, the other egotistic and hard-hearted,” Theo wrote of his brother. “They present themselves in turns.”

Van Gogh’s brushstrokes became bolder and laden with paint.

Van Gogh moved to Arles, France, with artist Paul Gauguin.

“The local population was scared of them,” Whybrow said. “They didn’t bathe too often.”

It is here, in December 1888, that van Gogh cut off his ear lobe, wrapped it in drawing paper and presented it to a local prostitute, Rachel, who van Gogh and Gauguin were attracted to.

Self-mutilation was featured frequently in the artist’s depressive delusions, Whybrow said.

“Vincent felt that prostitutes were fallen angels,” Whybrow said. “He protected them.”

Van Gogh was carted off to an asylum. He began to accept his “role as madman,” considering his madness is an illness like any other.

“He is a man before his time,” Whybrow said. “We have trouble doing that even now.”

During the 70 days before his death, he was hyperactive, producing 77 paintings and 30 drawings.

In 1890, at the age of 37, he shot himself in the chest but was a terrible shot, Whybrow said.

“He crawls back to the room and bleeds,” Whybrow said. “He dies, with Theo in attendance, from blood loss days later.”

Van Gogh’s illness has long perplexed physicians, who have offered up 30 different diagnoses, including lead poisoning, many psychiatric disorders and Meniere’s disease, a disorder of the inner ear, according to a paper published April 2002 in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

It’s useful to know how bipolar disorder manifests over a lifetime if left untreated, said Dr. Tai Yoo, joint chairman of psychiatry for Kern Medical Center and Kern County Mental Health.

If van Gogh had been treated, would he have been as prolific?

“Maybe a little less productivity, but the talent was still there,” Yoo said.

The illness did not produce those paintings, Whybrow said. The man did.

“Great artists are not made by madness.”

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