Vincent Van Gogh is one of the world's most renowned painters, but during his lifetime, he sold only one of his paintings, The Red Vineyard, even though he painted more than 900 canvases and penned more than 1100 drawings and sketches. He lived most of his life as a pauper and died penniless. Today many of his works are worth millions of dollars and a few years ago, one of his paintings was sold to a Japanese businessman for 80 million dollars.
Many of his paintings are distinguished by yellow coronas that make them uniquely his. The yellow circles are tell-tale markers of a life that was so miserable that on July 27, 1890 at age 37, he felt that he had failed as an artist and committed suicide by walking onto a field in Auvers-sur-Oise and shooting himself in the chest. He died two days later.
Foray into the Priesthood
He was born on March 30, 1853, in the Netherlands. At age 16, he got a job selling paintings at the Hague Art Gallery, but he failed to sell any so he quit to become a priest. He was so committed to his beliefs that he started his own ministry, gave up all his worldly possessions and asked his parishioners to do the same. Since just about all of his parishioners were unwilling to give up their worldly possessions, he was fired by his own church.
Becoming an Artist
Even though he had no formal artistic training, he decided to become an artist and painted or sketched nearly every day. However, he had so many mental and emotional problems that he spent the rest of his life going in and out of mental institutions, alternating between times of being totally irrational and times of being apparently normal. In 1889, when he was 36, he committed himself to an asylum at Saint Rémy in Provence but stayed there for less than a year. He then chose Dr. Paul-Ferdinand Gachet to be his physician. Gachet had his own mental health problems, but Van Gogh may have chosen him because he was also a painter.
Descent into Madness
By this time, Van Gogh's work was being recognized as potentially great by none other than Claude Monet, one of the founders of French Impressionism. Like Van Gogh, Monet also suffered from increasing alcoholism, depression and delusions.
Van Gogh's life became a downward spiral of depression, self-mutilation, insanity and finally suicide. He got so mad at his ear that he cut it off. Still, at times he would become so manic that he would paint for days on end, creating some of his greatest paintings. Since his death, many physicians have written articles about his brilliance, his overwhelming depression and his abject craziness, trying to give him a medical diagnosis that he did not receive in his lifetime. Today psychiatrists might diagnose him with manic depression, schizophrenia and seizures.
The Yellow Coronas
Van Gogh often used intense hues of yellow, and the older he became, the more his pictures included yellow halos, such as his famous painting, Starry Night. His focus on bright yellows could have been caused by digitalis intoxication, which can produce yellow vision called xanthopsia and glowing haloes around objects called coronas (West J Med, 2001 November; 175(5): 348). Van Gogh suffered from epilepsy and at that time, digitalis was used as a treatment for seizures (Actas Luso Esp Neurol Psiquiatr Cienc Afines, Sep-Oct, 1997;25(5):309-26). His physician, Dr. Gachet, prescribed digitalis and in return, he painted Dr. Gachet holding a foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) plant, from which the medicine is extracted (JAMA, 1981 Feb 20;245(7):727-9). He painted what he saw, which was different from what healthy people saw, so his paintings were distinctive. If it weren't for his seizures and digitalis, Van Gogh might not have become so famous. We know now that digitalis is not effective for treating seizures, but it is prescribed today to make the heart beat stronger and more regularly when it is damaged. Another theory is that Van Gogh drank a lot of absinthe, a popular liqueur containing thujone that can cause some people to see yellow spots.
Manic Depression and Genius
Plagued by psychiatric illness throughout his life, Van Gogh committed suicide in 1890. Evidence suggests that he suffered from manic depression, a chronic mental illness that affects moods. One day a person is so depressed that they can't do anything, not even get out of bed. The next day they are so manic that they can work for days without needing any sleep whatever. Van Gogh had a family history of craziness and seizures so there were probably genetic factors, but manic depression can also be caused by diseases such as porphyria, tertiary syphilis or lead poisoning.
Many other geniuses have suffered manic depression and gone from great accomplishments during times of mania to producing absolutely nothing of worth when they were depressed, including Emily Dickinson, Ernest Hemingway, Nikola Gogol, August Strindberg, Virginia Woolf, Lord Byron, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Francisco Goya, Gaetano Donizetti, George Frideric Handel, Otto Klemperer, Gustav Mahler and Robert Schumann (Orv Hetil, Aug 15, 2004;145(33):1709-18). Some people believe that these and other artists may become great because they overcome suffering by creating new things and ideas, but suffering can also overwhelm an artist. Van Gogh felt that he could have painted even better pictures if he could have overcome his depression. In a letter written just before he committed suicide, he said, "If I could have worked without this accursed disease, what things I might have done."
Today, Van Gogh's manic depression probably would be treated with lithium carbonate, but this drug is likely to prevent a person from being creative. If lithium carbonate had been available at that time, Van Gogh might have had a more stable and longer life, but it is extremely likely that he would not have created his many beloved paintings.
March 30, 1853 – July 29, 1890