Quotes From Vincent About His Medical Issues

To Theo: “As soon as I got out into the park, I got back all my lucidity for work; I have more ideas in my head than I could ever carry out, but without it clouding my mind. The brush strokes come like clockwork. So relying on that, I dare think that I shall find my balance in the North, once delivered from surroundings and circumstances which I do not understand or wish to understand.”

To Theo: “Oh, if I could have worked without this accursed disease—what things I might have done, isolated from others, following what the country said to me. But there, this journey is over and done with.” (#630, May 1890, Auvers, two months before his death)

To Emile Bernard, his colleague, friend, and peer: “I still have many things to say to you, but although I am writing today, now that my head has gotten a bit steadier, I was previously afraid to excite it before being cured.” (#B2l, Dec 1889)

To Theo: “Life passes like this, time does not return, but I am dead set on my work, for just this very reason, that I know the opportunities of working do not return. Especially in my case, in which a more violent attack may forever destroy my power to paint.

During the attacks I feel a coward before the pain and suffering—more of a coward than I ought to be, and it is perhaps this very moral cowardice which, whereas I had no desire to get better before, makes me eat like two now, work hard, limit my relations with the other patients for fear of a relapse—altogether I am now trying to recover like a man who meant to commit suicide and, finding the water too cold, tries to regain the bank… I also feel frightened faced with the suffering of these attacks. It is the work that keeps me well balanced. I cannot live since I have this dizziness (vertigo) so often.” (#605, Sept. 10, 1889).

To Wilhelmina, he wrote that he suspected his illness was incurable: “It is true that after this attack M. Peyron gave me some wine and meat, which I accepted willingly the first days, but he didn’t want to make an exception to the rule for long, and he is right to respect the regular rules of the establishment. I must also say that M. Peyron does not give me much hope for the future, and I think this right, he makes me realize that everything is doubtful, that one can be sure of nothing beforehand. I myself rather expect it to return, however my work occupies my mind so thoroughly that I think that with the physique I have, things may continue this way for a long time.”

To Wilhelmina: “The more ugly, old, vicious, ill, poor I get, the more I want to take my revenge by producing a brilliant color, well arranged, resplendent [canvas]. Jewelers to get old and ugly before they learn how to arrange precious stones well. And arranging the colors in a picture in order to make them vibrate and to enhance their value by their contrasts is something like arranging jewels properly or designing costumes.” (W#7, September 1888)

After that last two-month-long interval of recurrent spells of his vertigo with periods of calm in between, he then had no further attacks of vertigo. More importantly, he never had any further attacks of vertigo after mid-April 1890, nor did he have any more attacks of madness, presumably describing the same clinical phenomenon. He felt good enough to leave the asylum in mid-May, only a month after this last flurry of milder attacks in mid-April. He apparently never had another attack or any episodes of “madness” after arriving in Auvers-sur-Oise.

There were some strange behaviors reported by Dr. Paul-Ferdinand Gachet and later his son, Paul Jr. What were these strange and threatening episodes, and why don’t the Gachets’ statements fit with what others saw and reported regarding Vincent’s unusually pleasant and calm demeanor and behavior? This final period of his last seventy days in Auvers was reported by many to be his most calm and productive period, without any further mention or apparent manifestations of this mysterious medical problem that has baffled so many for so long, and still so many today.

During his time in Arles, and again in St. Remy, he had violent attacks of vertigo with hallucinations of rotation. The admitting doctor, Dr. Theophile Peyron, wrote in the register of the asylum that these attacks Vincent had were caused by epilepsy. This was a reasonable nineteenth-century diagnosis before Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot revamped our understanding of neurological disorders.(1881 ) This diagnosis of epilepsy by Dr. Peyron has been carried down for many years and still appears in the art history books. While it was historically accurate in 1889, when it was reviewed more recently by modern clinical medicine, the diagnosis of epilepsy was considered clinically inaccurate to explain his unexpected and unprovoked attacks.(arenberg, 1990) His attacks were coming from a disorder of the inner ear and not a disorder of the brain.

During the onset and progression of his inner-ear symptoms, with major and minor attacks, van Gogh began to paint a canvas a day, almost like keeping a diary. During this early period, he completed sixty paintings in two months. Between February 1888 and May 1889, he produced roughly two hundred paintings, two hundred drawings and watercolors, and one hundred letters. It would be interesting to speculate further on whether van Gogh would have been as prolific an artist if he had not had Meniere’s disease or if his Meniere’s disease could have been successfully treated. Perhaps Vincent would not have been prompted to embark on such a frenzy of artistic activity if he did not fear his unexpected, recurrent, and violent Meniere’s disease attacks so much. Oddly enough, maybe we have his afflictions to thank—not for his death, but for the remarkable nature of his life and his prolific output.