Few painters can stand the test of time. Vincent van Gogh is a man that has transcended generations and captivated onlookers with his unique style. Van Gogh was a self-taught painter that was extremely under-appreciated during his time. He frequently suffered from anxiety, mental illness, and frequent bouts throughout his life. Therefore, it is often said that van Gogh was mentally unstable. One may look at his dementia as a simple cause of the times he was living in; others have suggested a stranger theory: van Gogh's love of absinthe. While the evidence presented in the past may be far from definite, the drink was known to have harmful effects on the human psyche and body. Vincent van Gogh's artwork and style of art was ultimately influenced by his appreciation for absinthe.
If one is to fully understand the case for van Gogh's 'absinthism', it is useful to know a bit about the beverage's history and biochemistry. Absinthe is a bitter liquor distilled from the top parts of the wormwood plant (Artemisia absinthum). The drink is pale to emerald green in color when bottled, and attains a straw-yellow opalescence after being diluted with cool water (Arnold 103). Depending on the recipe, a variety of herbs and botanicals are added to impart a licorice-like flavor and disguise the bitter taste of wormwood. Though known since Biblical times as a supposed therapeutic drink, the popularity of absinthe increased dramatically in Western Europe in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Doris Lanier writes that "Absinthe became almost a symbol for the Bohemian spirit (46)" and lists Vincent van Gogh, among others, as artists that enjoyed absinthe recreationally.
The primary pharmacologically-active agent in absinthe is thujone, an organic compound in the chemical class known as terpenes. The terpene family includes other chemicals such as turpentine and camphor that are well known to act biologically as convulsants. Indeed, as early as the late nineteenth century, French researchers had "shown that convulsions resembling epilepsy could be induced in man or experimental animals with toxic doses of absinthe" (Arnold 132). In the early 1900s, the director of the Paris Asylum at Sainte-Anne determined that dogs under the influence of absinthe behaved as if they were confronted with an enemy, even if they were merely staring at a blank wall (Lanier 33). Although thujone is the most toxic component of absinthe, the convulsions in this study could have been the result of any number of chemicals present in the liquor. The composition of absinthe is notoriously unpredictable due to irregularities in its production, yielding a tonic of numerous potentially toxic chemicals, including methanol (wood alcohol) and isobutyl alcohol. Small doses of both of these chemicals are known to cause headache, fatigue, visual impairment, and (with significant dosage) convulsions and death (Arnold 116). Further, absinthe use has been implicated in epileptic-style seizures. Recently, researchers at the University of California have identified that thujone acts on the same neurons in the brain that misfire during an epileptic seizure: thujone inhibits a cellular receptor that prevents uncontrolled neural activity (Berkeley).
Absinthe's ability to act as a convulsant or induce epileptic seizures is quite significant; many scholars and physicians have attributed much of van Gogh's bizarre behavior to epilepsy. Van Gogh's nearly daily letters to his brother Theo provide a remarkable and brutally honest record of many of the artist's daily activities, and countless letters describe symptoms consistent with disorders related to epilepsy (typically diagnosed after the fact as 'complex partial status' epilepsy). Even van Gogh himself said in a letter to his brother, "I am a madman or an epileptic" (Arnold 171-2). Some of his contemporary caretakers agreed; Dr. Peyron at St. Remy and Dr. Felix Rey at the Arles hospital actually diagnosed van Gogh as suffering from epilepsy. Later scholars such as Albert J. Lubin (1972) and R.R. Monroe (1978) have made the scientifically plausible argument that van Gogh's epilepsy was brought on, or at least potentiated by, his use of absinthe (Lanier 91).
Another intriguing absinthe-related "diagnosis" was made by Wilfred Arnold, who suggested that van Gogh suffered from a condition known as acute intermittent porphyria (AIP). Patients suffering from AIP have disordered heme production. Heme is a biomolecule that is a component of the blood's hemoglobin as well as the cytochromes that are involved with cellular metabolism; misproduction of these compounds has a devastating effect on almost every aspect of health. AIP is still a difficult diagnosis to make, even though the health field has grown exponentially. However, this hypothesis fits much of the known information about van Gogh's condition: his incapacitating depression, intermittent psychosis, photosensitivity, sexual impotence, convulsions, post-adolescent onset of illness, frequent gastrointestinal problems, etc (Arnold 143). Further, recent studies done at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center have indicated that, in the presence of thujone and other terpenes, the heme biosynthetic pathway is inhibited, exacerbating the symptoms of AIP (Arnold 158). If it is true that van Gogh suffered from inherited AIP, then his absinthe use had to have made his condition worse.
Vincent van Gogh's personal use of absinthe is well documented. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec - a noted absinthe drinker himself - did a pastel of Vincent van Gogh sitting before a glass of absinthe in 1887. Van Gogh himself painted Still Life with Absinthe a year later, indicating that absinthe was a subject of some interest to him at the time. While few have argued that van Gogh was an alcoholic, the artist did frequently describe his drinking in his letters. Upon moving to Paris, he told Theo that he was "certainly going the right way for a stroke (Lanier 80)" as a consequence of his drinking; to another friend, he wrote that he was "seriously sick at heart and in body and nearly an alcoholic by the time he left Paris" (Dorn). Later, he described to Theo the depression he felt after moving to Arles, saying that the only way to "bring ease and distraction" to his condition was "to stun [himself] with a lot of drinking or heavy smoking." He further noted that "if the storm within gets too loud, I take a glass too much to stun myself" (Lanier 81). Interestingly, van Gogh's and Paul Gauguin's final night together in Arles (before van Gogh's infamous ear-cutting episode) was marked by van Gogh suddenly and violently flinging his glass of absinthe at Gauguin as the two men drank together (Lanier 87).
If it is true that van Gogh's absinthe use was responsible for his medical conditions, it is reasonable to conclude that this manifested itself in his art. For example, one of van Gogh's best-known works, The Night Café, shows the venue for much of his absinthe consumption while in Arles. Van Gogh claimed that he painted The Night Café on location in only three days, painting all night and sleeping during the day. As Arnold points out, "It is tempting to speculate that [van Gogh] had a glass or two during the execution of this painting" (233). Other critics have suggested this possibility as well, noting the unusual perspective and palette of clashing reds and greens and stating that the artist "may have been influenced by the visions he experienced during the beginning of a seizure" or by "absinthe, one of the artist's common indulgences [which] is known to affect the occipital lobe, which controls vision" (Lanier 86). Van Gogh himself hinted at this possibility, writing in a letter that an art gallery manager would naturally assume that he was having "delirium tremens" while painting the canvas (Arnold 233).
Perhaps even van Gogh's portraiture shows some influence of his absinthe-induced illness. Van Gogh believed that "portraits have a life of their own, coming straight from a painter's soul (Dorn 104)" so his self portraits may provide the best glimpse into his inner turmoil. Consider his Self Portrait of 1886, painted shortly after his arrival in Paris. The state of his health is obviously poor; his skin is pallid, and his brow is furrowed; though only thirty-three at the time, the figure in the portrait could easily be mistaken for a man in his mid-fifties. The palette is almost exclusively limited to hues of brown and grey, making this image darker than any of his other self portraits. Perhaps not coincidentally, the time when this portrait was painted coincides with the time when van Gogh described himself as being "nearly an alcoholic" (Kendall 121).
There are other trends noticeable - especially in van Gogh's final period - that suggest the possible influence of absinthe. According to Arnold, in the last 18 months of his life, when van Gogh experienced at least four fits with hallucinations resembling those described by absinthe drinkers, he was exposing himself to increasing amounts of thujone. Even when he was given leave from the hospital at Arles or the asylum at Saint Remy there are good indications that he drank absinthe (thanks in part to the unwitting assistance of his well-wishing friends) and that he relapsed accordingly (Lanier 93).
Arnold goes on to suggest that it was van Gogh's hallucinations that gave him his unique perception of color and the relationships between colors that is seen in his final artistic period. Truly, examining such works as 1889's Self Portrait, Wheat Field with a Reaper, and 1890's Village Street and Stairs with Figures reveals color combinations not seen in van Gogh's earlier work. Van Gogh described his "very delicate sobriety," saying that sobriety is less "colorfulâ€¦in short, it is the difference [between] painting in gray or in colors" (Arnold 298). Van Gogh seems to echo the sentiment of certain other artists, who believe that the use of alcohol or other drugs opens the mind to a new view of the world. Other critics have observed that while sober and in the hospital at Arles or the asylum at St. Remy, van Gogh's "use of color, which had often been so intenseâ€¦ became more muted (Kendall).
Other researchers have identified certain van Gogh canvases that exhibit "yellow dominance." These so-called "high-yellow" paintings are "rich in yellows, but virtually lacking in blues, violets, and white" (Arnold 225). Such works include Sunflowers (1887), Olive Trees (1889), and Pine Trees Against a Red Sky With a Setting Sun (1889). Wilfred Arnold suggests that this interesting color selection was caused by periodic xanthopsia, a medical condition in which the patient's vision is cast in a yellow glaze (Arnold 227). This condition may have been aggravated by "van Gogh's overindulgence in absinthe, together with an increased susceptibility to its toxic effects due to inadequate diet" (Arnold 234).
Of course, it is far too simple to pass off the work of any artist - especially one as complex as van Gogh - as somehow being a deterministic result of a clinical syndrome. Many critics and historians (and even van Gogh's sister-in-law) vehemently oppose even the suggestion that van Gogh's illness had any appreciable effect on his art (Kendall 147). This sentiment is explained most eloquently by Ronald Pickvance of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who maintains that
"Van Gogh's paintings are neither graphs of his so-called madness nor primarily indicators of his mental stateâ€¦ [van Gogh] described color, handling and design in terms that respond far more to internal artistic necessity than to psychological quirks or medical abnormalitiesâ€¦ he conceived of process, purpose and function with a deliberate and almost programmatic intent" (Lanier 96-98).
Basically, Pickvance is stating the view that van Gogh's paintings were not a product of mind altering chemicals. Pickvance is so focused on the positive image of van Gogh that he overlooks van Gogh's deeper problem with alcoholism. Just as is the case with any artist, however, van Gogh's creativity and artistic expression is framed within the context of his life. To understand and appreciate van Gogh's achievements and legacy requires an understanding of his life - the direction of which was potentially changed by his use of absinthe. By understanding the depth of van Gogh's problem with absinthe, we can ultimately help document the effects of psychactives in artwork - and whether it is a attribute or a consequence.
After van Gogh's death, Dr. Gachet (the French physician responsible for van Gogh) planted a small ornamental tree on his patient's grave. After fifteen years, when van Gogh's remains were transferred to a larger plot, it was discovered that the roots of the tree had completely entwined the casket, as if in an embrace. It is at once both fitting and perverse, then, that the tree that Gachet unwittingly planted was a Thuja tree - a source of and the namesake for absinthe's most toxic component, thujone (Arnold 310).