Cassatt (Cataracts, Diabetic Retinopathy)

Cezanne (Myopia)

Degas (Retinopathy)

El Greco (Astigmatism?)

Monet (Cataracts)

Rembrandt (Visual Aging)

Renoir (Myopia)

Van Gogh (Xanthopsia?)





VAN GOGH, VINCENT (1853 - 1890)

Who was Vincent Van Gogh?

Vincent van Gogh was born on March 30, 1853 in Zundert, a town in the southern Netherlands. Van Gogh died at his own hand in France at the age of 37. The son of a Protestant pastor, he was the eldest of six children and, by all accounts, had a normal, happy childhood. Van Gogh came from an upstanding family of clergymen, art-dealers, and military officers, and his parents wished for him to follow in this tradition. As a child, he was an insatiable reader, with wide-ranging interests, including religion. Although his mother was a talented artist, van Gogh did not pursue art in his early life. He was especially close to his younger brother, Theodore (Theo), his most staunch supporter.

In 1873, at age 20, van Gogh traveled to London, fell in love with an English girl by whom he was rejected. Saddened and disillusioned, he resigned himself to a solitary life as a language teacher and a lay preacher in England. From 1879 to 1880, van Gogh did missionary work in southwestern Belgium. He had deep sympathy for the poor and unfortunate. He gave away all of his possessions and fell into despair and poverty. In his solitude, van Gogh began to draw. He also underwent a spiritual awakening and decided that his mission in life was to console humanity through art.

Van Gogh moved to Paris, where his brother Theo worked as an art-dealer. Theo introduced him to many of the popular painters of the time, including Paul Gaugin, Camille Pissarro, and Georges Seurat. In 1888 he settled in Arles in Provence, where he painted his famous series of Sunflowers. He invited Gaugin to live with him, but the relationship suffered because of extreme conflict and personality differences. Gaugin left shortly thereafter. In extreme despair, at the age of 35, on Christmas Eve of 1888, Van Gogh cut off a part of his left ear. Mentally ill, he was treated at the hospital in Arles shortly after this event. He was then committed to the asylum in St. Remy, where he was under medical supervision for 12 months. He continued to paint while in the asylum.

Vincent van Gogh shot himself on July 27, 1890. He died two days later with his brother Theo present. (Theo died only six months later). Although he sold only one painting during his life, van Gogh is now considered one of the greatest Dutch painters since Rembrandt. His fame was probably enhanced by his well-documented mental difficulties.

The whole of van Gogh’s impressive portfolio was completed in 10 years This included approximately 800 oil paintings and 700 drawings. His working life can be broken into two periods. Many apprenticeships, failures and changes in direction characterize the first period, from 1873 to 1885. The second period, from 1886 to 1890, is a period of dedication, rapid development and fulfillment in his work. He is considered a post-Impressionist painter, his style quite different from that of the Impressionists. His work is heavily concerned with the expressionism characteristic of modern art.





Van Gogh's visual disorder: xanthopsia? glaucoma?

Given the multiplictiy of diagnoses, it is not clear if van Gogh suffered from a visual disorder and if so, its origins. Van Gogh was treated by the well-known doctor, Paul-Ferdinand Gachet, a physician for one of the France’s railroad companies. Gachet may well have treated van Gogh for mania and/or epilepsy with digitalis. In the 19th century digitalis, extracted from the purple foxglove plant, was one of the main treatments for these disorders. It was used as a sedative, an anticonvulsant, and an anti-manic agent. Interestingly, on the only two occasions that van Gogh painted Doctor Gachet he was holding a foxglove plant (right). Was this van Gogh's way of telling us that he suffered from the effects of digitalis poisoning at Doctor Gachet's hand?

One of the side effects of systemic digitalis treatment is a disturbance in yellow-blue vision (xanthopsia), similar to viewing the world through a yellow filter. Glare and colored haloes may also be experienced as visual side effects. Many of van Gogh’s works have a definite yellow cast. The Starry Night (below), The Night Café, Sunflowers (below). Later self-portraits all have a distinctive yellow hue. The yellow tone in his painting is especially noticeable in the stars in The Starry Night, the work Enclosed Field with Reaper (above), and in van Gogh's flesh in his self-portrait dedicated to Paul Gaugin (at left). It is possible that digitalis-induced xanthopsia was making van Gogh perceive the world with a yellow tint. The predominance of colored halos around light sources in various works, such as The Starry Night, may also be attributable to the effects of digitalis.

Counter to the digitalis-induced xanthopsia hypothesis, Doctor Gachet was well-known for his use and writings on the careful use of this drug. Gachet has been charged with mishandling van Gogh’s care by administering excessive doses of digitalis. Although Gachet was aware of the potency of the drug, administering large amounts of digitalis may have been the doctor’s only hope in treating a patient who was seemingly uncontrollable. In addition to any possible visual disorders, numerous other diagnoses of van Gogh’s general health have been suggested. These include mental disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, neurosis, and epilepsy, as well as syphilis, gonorrhea, alcohol poisoning (from drinking dark absinthe), and sunstroke (diagnosed by Dr. Gachet).

Alternately, it has been proposed that the haloes in van Gogh’s works are due to a form of glaucoma. The elevation in intraocular pressure associated with glaucoma can lead to corneal edema (swelling). The swollen cornea diffracts light into its component parts, causing the observer to perceive colored haloes around light sources. Since glaucoma is rarely seen among individuals under age 40, it is unlikely that van Gogh, who died at age 37, was so afflicted. Haloes have been painted historically to create atmosphere, mood, and symbolism. Van Gogh haloes may have been painted for the same reasons.


Alternative explanations

There are many alternative explanations for the over-abundance of yellow found in van Gogh’s work. He was fascinated with color and its effects, and often experimented with different ranges of tone. The effects of xanthopsia should have minimized the amount of blues in his work. Yet in most of his paintings there is a strong presence of blue tones. In his correspondence, he often wrote of the importance of a balance between yellow and blue in his work. Van Gogh liked to experiment with different styles and palettes to suit the impression of each painting. It is possible, if not likely, that the profusion of yellow is present solely as part of his artistic style. Nonetheless, xanthopsia induced by digitalis or some other agent provides an interesting hypothesis to account for the predominance of yellow in van Gogh’s various works.




Cassatt | Cézanne | Degas | El Greco | Monet | Rembrandt | Renoir | Van Gogh