9th Greek Australian Legal and Medical Conference
Rhodes, Greece 2003

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VINCENT VAN GOGH: THE PSYCHIATRIST’S VIEW

Professor Graham D. Burrows,
AO, KCSJ BSc, MB, ChB, DPM, MD, FRANZCP, FRCPsych, MRACMA, DipMHlthSc(Clinical Hypnosis), FAChAM
Department of Psychiatry, University of Melbourne
Austin Health

I was honoured by the invitation from our Chairman of the Scientific Programme Committee, Chief Justice John Harbour Phillips to comment on his excellent play.  In particular to give a psychiatrist’s view.  Taking a biopsychosocial approach, looking at childhood and what happened to him during his life was of great interest.  I would like to share that with you in a brief form.  My talk included a lot of his art, but obviously that is not possible to put it in such a brief presentation.

His childhood: born as a replacement child

Vincent Van Gogh, the son of a minister was born on 30th March 1853 in Groot Zundert, The Netherlands.  Van Gogh’s birth came one year to the day after his mother gave birth to a first, stillborn child – also named Vincent.  There has been much speculation about Vincent van Gogh suffering later psychological trauma as a result of being a “replacement child” and having a deceased brother with the same name and same birth date.  This theory remains unsubstantiated, however, and there is no actual historical evidence to support it.  His brother, Theodorus was born four years later on 1st May 1857.  In 1864, Vincent was sent to a boarding school in Zevengergen. 

Unfortunately, there is virtually no information about Vincent’s first ten years.

Vincent in The Hague (1869 – 1873)

In 1869, at the age of 16, Vincent started an apprenticeship as a junior clerk with the international art firm Goupil’s & Co, where he worked until he was dismissed from the London office in 1873.  It was during this time that he fell in love with the daughter of his landlady and when he expressed his love to her, she was already engaged to become married.  It was in 1872 when Vincent wrote his first letter to his brother Theo – one of 700 during an 18-year period. 

Moving back and forward between London and Paris (1875 – 1878)

He worked as a schoolmaster in England in 1876 teaching English, French, German, orthography and Mathematics, before training for the ministry at Amsterdam University in 1877.  He worked as a bookkeeper, but was more interested in the bible than in bookkeeping and book selling.  He spent hours reading the bible, making excerpts and writing sermons.  After he failed to get a post in the Church, he went to live as an independent missionary among the Borinage miners. 

Vincent van Gogh as an Evangelist

In 1879, the Evangelist College in Brussels assigns Vincent a preacher’s job in Wasmes.

Art, Vincent’s true devotion (1880-1881)

Vincent moves to Brussels in 1880, and decides to become an artist.  He lived in great poverty, and his brother would send money to him in order for him to survive.  Vincent moved to his father’s parsonage and studies drawing.  In 1881, Vincent’s career as an artist began.

Meeting Anton Mauve and living with Sien, an old prostitute (1881-1885)

He moved to The Hague, where he studied watercolour painting and met Anton Mauve (his cousin by marriage), who was interested in Vincent’s work.  Sien, a prostitute with a 5-year-old daughter moved in with Vincent to be his permanent model.  Mauve began rejecting Vincent, it is unclear why, but it was thought it might be due to his disapproval of Vincent’s relationship with Sien.  It could also have been because of Vincent’s moods. 

Trying times in Holland (1882-1885)

Vincent left Sien in September 1882.  He moved to Drenthe where he would spend his time recovering from the failed relationship in isolation. 

Once again, Vincent returned to his parents’ home, now in Nuenen, in late 1883.  He completed no fewer than 500 paintings and drawings of peasant life. 

In March 1885, Vincent’s father died a sudden death from a stroke.  In that same month, Vincent began his first project ‘The Potato Eaters’ and a new series of still lifes. 

Text Box: Neunen/April 1885
Five persons at a meal
(The Potato Eaters)

Living in Antwerp and Paris (1885-1888)

In 1885, Vincent moved to Antwerp to enrol at the Academy, which lead to disappointment.  He was only there for 3 months. 

Vincent had written to his brother, Theo, throughout early 1886 in an effort to convince Theo that Paris is where he belonged.  Theo was all too aware of his brother’s somewhat abrasive personality and resisted, but as always, Vincent was undeterred and simply arrived in Paris unannounced in early March, and Theo had no choice but to take Vincent in.  He discovers Impressionism and meets painters such as Monet and Pissaro.  In 1887, Vincent paints a series of self-portraits that reflects the influence of Impressionism very clearly.  They were much more colourful than his earlier work. 

Early 1988, Vincent moved to Arles as he had enough of Paris, where he was miserable and almost addicted to drink.  He lived in a little yellow house.  The house is represented in a famous painting ‘Vincent’s House’. 

Text Box: Paris/January 1887
Self-portrait with grey felt hat

Gauguin arrives, Vincent goes mad! (December 1988)

Paul Gauguin, a painter, and his family moved in with Vincent.  They spent 9 weeks working together.  Gradually tension grew between the two men, which ended Gauguin’s stay in Arles.  Vincent cut off part of his ear and then handed it to a prostitute and said, “Keep this object like treasure”.  His actions where put down to the possible excessive use of Absinth, which has driven a number of people towards madness. 

Text Box: Arles/September 1888
Portrait of van Gogh’s Mother
(after a photograph)

Text Box: Arles/August 1888
Fourteen sunflowers in a vase
Arles August 1888

The last two years of Vincent’s life (1889-1890)

Vincent suffered 3 attacks in Arles.  From 24th December 1888 to 19th January 1889, 4th February 1889 to 18th February 1889 and 26th February to mid April 1889.  Apparently, Vincent’s friend said he hardly ate, and drank way too much.  While drinking, he would report both visual and auditory hallucinations. 

Text Box: Arles
Self-portrait with bandaged ear

As was often the case throughout his life, poor weather during the winter months left Vincent irritable and depressed.  Never was Vincent more happy than when he was outdoors communing with nature when the weather was at its finest.  Whether painting or simply taking long walks, Vincent lived for the sun.  During the bleak winter months in Paris of 1887-1888, he became restless. 

Although he seemed fully recovered between episodes and was treated by a local physician, Vincent was committed to a special cell in the hospital by order of the superintendent of police after a petition was signed by some 30 neighbours.  In May, he commits himself to Saint-Rémy-de-Provence mental asylum – he had no choice as the locals thought he was a mad red head!

Text Box: Arles/January 1889
Dormitory in the hospital

Text Box: St Rémy/May 1889
Asylum and garden


Vincent’s death: “Sadness shall last forever!” (1890)

Vincent returned to his address in Auvers-sur-Oise.  On the evening of Sunday 27th July, Vincent set out with his easel and painting materials, into the fields.  There he took out a revolver and shot himself in the chest, missing the heart.  He managed to stagger back to the Ravoux Inn where he collapsed in bed, where the owner discovered him.  Doctors concluded that it was impossible to remove the bullet. 

The next morning Theo arrived from Paris and remained at his bedside.  While Vincent lay there quietly smoking his pipe, he said to Theo “La tristesse durera toujours”, meaning, “Sadness shall last forever”.  Vincent died the next night, 29th July at half past one. 

Vincent only ever sold one of his paintings during his lifetime in 1890 for 400 francs.  He only painted for 10 years, painting approximately 800 paintings, not including the watercolours, drawing or sketches. 

In conclusion the psychiatrists’ views are:

Diagnosis:   “An unusual case of polysurgical addiction”.

Abram, S.H.,
American Journal of Psychiatry, 123(4) 1966, pg478-481.

Diagnosis:   “Schizophrenia”.

Jaspers K., Strindberg and Van Gogh, 1977, pg220.

Diagnosis:   “Manic-depressive artist – severe form of bipolar disorder”.

Lukoff D.,
Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, Vol:20(1) 1988, pg10-20.


Diagnosis:      “Manic depressive mood swings aggravated by absinthe, brandy, nicotine and turpentine”.

Morrant, J.C.,
Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, Vol:38(7) Sept 1993, pg480-484

Diagnosis:   “Long-standing melancholia”.

Gardner, M.R.,
Annual of Psychoanalysis, Vol26-27, 1999, pg47-57.

Diagnosis:   “Dysphoric disorders and paroxysmal affects: recognition and treatment of epilepsy-related psychiatric disorders”.

Blumer, D., Harv Rev Psychiatry, 2000;8:8-17.

As you will note, there are many and varied.  My own view is that he probably had multiple pathologies, but I would form the opinion that he did suffer from a bipolar affective disorder, but there are organic features as well.

I personally thoroughly enjoyed his Honour’s play and I know that it was the consensus of the registrants’ views.

Text Box: St Rémy/June 1889
The Starry Night

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Copyright 2003. Greek/Australian International Legal and Medical Conference.
For more information contact Jenny Crofts at jennycrofts@ozemail.com.au