Sunday, July 14, 2013

Did Drinking Absinthe Cause Van Gogh to Lose His Mind?

One of the allures to the story of Vincent Van Gogh is that this brilliant artist went crazy.  He didn't just go crazy -- he went bug-fucking nuts. Things he did included:

eating his paints
following women into their homes when he was clearly uninvited
pissing off anyone who could have helped his career
that cutting off his ear lobe thing

So Let's Try the Question Again

Why did Vincent Van Gogh become bug-fucking nuts? Because he died in 1890 (even before Sigmund Freud's publication of The Interpretation of Dreams for crying out loud) we really have no idea what spicy stew of mental and physical disorders that Vincent actually suffered from.  It was known that around the time of his death he suffered from:

  • syphilis
  • impotence
  • rotting teeth
  • hallucinations, which may have been caused by temporal lobe epilepsy
  • starvation due to extreme poverty
  • paranoia
  • alcoholism
Clearly, drinking absinthe was the least of Vincent's problems.

What About the Hallucinations?

One theory is that he hallucinated because he was addicted to absinthe.  The real absinthe was banned in France in 1915 but returned in 2012.  America's ban on real absinthe was lifted about 2007.  Until then, all anyone had to drink was weak substitutes.  Why was the stuff banned?  It was 110 to 144 proof.  I'm surprised Vincent lived as long as he did while quaffing this brew.  Rumor is that he drank it straight but absinthe was an expensive drink and so a bottle may have always been out of Vincent's price range.  It was usually drunk with lots of water and a melted sugar cube.

Absinthe has never been proven to cause hallucinations more than any other alcoholic beverage.  It could be that Vincent was especially sensitive to absinthe that it could have tipped him over the edge of sanity but Vincent was already teetering there.  Epilepsy and mental illness appeared frequently in Vincent's family.  Most of his siblings committed suicide.  His beloved brother Theo died insane and incontinent because of advanced syphilis. 

It wasn't just one factor that caused Vincent to go mad.  It was a large combination of factors.


  1. Have you see the film trailer for The Eyes of van Gogh? It’s on YouTube and the film is out on DVD.

  2. That's the film with Benedict Cumberbatch as Vincent? I'm afraid I don't like his interpretation and I'm not fond of him as an actor. Thanks for asking, though. I might try watching the film clips again on YouTube.