CHICAGO — When art aficionados view Vincent Van Gogh's "Irises," they see a brilliant depiction in oil of a bed of purple-blue flowers. When investors examine the 2-foot, 4-inch-by-3-foot canvas, they see $53.9 million.
But when psychiatrists pore over the angry brush strokes and aggressive composition of the sun-flecked, windblown irises grown in an asylum garden, they see a deeply disturbed individual.
"Vincent has always aroused keen interest in the psychiatric community," said Dr. John Curtis, of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, adding, "He could have used more help when he was alive."
Virtually ignored by both the mental health and artistic communities, Van Gogh is now an institution in both circles. Just as the record-breaking sale of one of his later paintings shook the art world, Van Gogh's psyche recently created a minor stir among psychiatrists.
At a meeting of specialists treating multiple personality disorders, Curtis of the Canadian school presented evidence that Van Gogh suffered from either a split personality or a mood disorder so severe that it often made him behave like two different people.
"I think it's clear he suffered from some sort of a dissociative disorder," Curtis said. "He had all the classic symptoms."
Other experts on split personality, while not quick to embrace Curtis' theory, are neither quick to reject it.
"Fundamentally, of course, it's unprovable," said Dr. Bennett Braun, the Chicago psychiatrist who organized the dissociative disorders conference. "But it is intriguing, isn't it?"
Curtis is hardly the first to put Van Gogh on the couch. In the first 40 years after the painter's suicide in 1890, more than 100 academic papers were published, speculating on his affliction, with as many diagnoses: schizophrenia, anxiety, dementia, manic depression and anorexia being among the more mundane.
Like the psychiatric prospectors before him, Curtis bases his hypothesis on a reading of five volumes of Van Gogh's letters, including correspondence with his brother, Theo, and sister, Wilhimena, and the observations of his colleague, Paul Gauguin.
"These letters document with startling clarity" Van Gogh's mental disturbances, Curtis said.
A temperamental artist who spent much of his last two years in an asylum, Van Gogh himself suspected something was wrong. He wrote to his sister of fainting spells and blackouts in which whole spans of time would be lost to him.
"I have had in all four great crises," he wrote, "during which I didn't in the least know what I said, what I wanted or what I did."
Van Gogh also described suffering from "horrible fits of anxiety that are apparently without cause"--another symptom of a dissociated personality. In trying but failing to suppress traumatic events or feelings from the past, some people develop fractured memories ("split personalities") as a coping mechanism, Curtis said. These people can remain highly productive as a result, at least for awhile.
Van Gogh speculated as much, writing that he might be "reduced to madness . . . if it were not that I have almost a double nature, that of monk and of painter as it were."
Van Gogh, Curtis hypothesizes, may have poured his frenzy and anger into his painting personality, creating the vivid images he was renowned for but also leaving his friends and relatives at a loss to explain his odd behavior.
"It seems as if he were two persons," his brother wrote. "One, marvelously gifted, tender and refined; the other, egoistic and hard-hearted. They present themselves in turns, so that one hears him first talk in one way, then in the other, and always with arguments on both sides."
By the time Van Gogh spent two months with Gauguin in the fall of 1888, he was already experiencing violent episodes he seemed to not remember. Gauguin described a strange life with Van Gogh in the "yellow house" in Arles, France.
"On several nights, I surprised Vincent who had gotten up and was coming toward my bed," Gauguin told a biographer. "Every time I had only to say to him very bravely, 'What is the matter, Vincent?' and he would go back to bed and sleep like a log."
The living arrangements and both artistic temperaments culminated with Van Gogh going after Gauguin with a butcher knife.
But Gauguin related, "I must have looked at him with a very commanding eye, because he stopped, lowered his head and ran back toward the house."
On Christmas Eve, 1888, Van Gogh severed part of his left ear, precipitating Gauguin's departure, as well as Vincent's "Self-portrait With a Bandaged Ear."
In April, 1889, Van Gogh had himself committed to the asylum at St. Remy de Provence, where he stayed for a year and painted "Irises" and "Garden of the Asylum," among others.
Van Gogh's release in May, 1890, saw a short spurt of creative activity, followed by his suicide three months later.
Curtis acknowledged that "several pieces" are missing from his diagnosis, primary among them the sort of trauma that would have caused Van Gogh to dissociate. Some 90% of dissociative disorders are traced to severe physical or sexual abuse as a child.
He suggests, however, that Van Gogh's birth itself may have been the precipitating factor.
"Vincent was born on March 30, 1853, exactly one year to the day that his brother, also named Vincent, was born stillborn and buried on the family property," Curtis said. "I don't know, but it seems to me that walking around and always seeing your name and birth date on a tombstone might be traumatic."