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Did Absinthe Make Van Gogh's Mind Wander?

November 30, 1988|BARBARA ISENBERG | Times Staff Writer

Was Vincent van Gogh addicted to absinthe and overly fond of camphor and turpentine? Did substance abuse help push him toward his suicide in 1890?

Wilfred Niels Arnold, a Kansas City, Kan., biochemist, thinks so in both cases. In the current issue of the Journal of the American Medical Assn., Arnold joins legions of art historians, psychiatrists and others who have long analyzed the mental health, self-mutilation and death of one of the world's best-known artists.

Arnold's theory is that in addition to Van Gogh's underlying mental illness, the Dutch post-Impressionist also had an addiction to the liqueur absinthe and an excessive attraction to certain related chemicals. While hospitalized for cutting off his ear, Van Gogh put camphor on his pillow and mattress to ward off insomnia. And artist Paul Signac later spoke of the artist wanting to drink turpentine.

"I am convinced that during his last decade, Van Gogh developed an affinity for chemicals of the terpene class and that they contributed to his early demise," Arnold wrote in the journal. "Moreover, in the most bizarre of juxtapositions, they followed him even beyond interment."

Terpenes are present in camphor, absinthe and turpentine, leading Arnold to suggest that Van Gogh had a "pica," or unnatural food craving, for terpenes. That craving would help explain the artist's attempts to eat his paints and drink turpentine, Arnold argues.

In a turn of events Arnold can describe only as "surreal," it seems that a tree planted over Van Gogh's grave in Auvers-sur-Oise happened to be a Thuja tree, a classic source of the thujone Arnold identifies as the toxic element in absinthe. And the roots of that Thuja tree at one point even entwined the artist's casket.

Absinthe was so popular in France before it was banned (for its highly intoxicating effect) that bars even had "the hour of absinthe" like today's cocktail hour, says Arnold, who thinks physicians of the time probably didn't notice Van Gogh's over-indulgence as anything extraordinary. Indicating how commonplace absinthe was in arts circles, Baudelaire wrote poems about it, and Toulouse-Lautrec even painted Van Gogh drinking it. Not only did Van Gogh himself include glasses of absinthe in some of his paintings, but he also once threw a glass of it at Gauguin.

Besides, Van Gogh wasn't always famous. While his painting "Irises" sold at auction last year for $53.9 million, breaking the previous record set by another Van Gogh painting called "Sunflowers," the artist's work was minimally exhibited during his lifetime and only one of his more than 1,600 drawings and oil paintings sold before his death. In and out of mental hospitals in his last years, he died in poverty.

Yet, given Van Gogh's bizarre life and incredible talent, few artists have provided such rich dramatic material. Besides Vincente Minnelli's 1956 film of Irving Stone's "Lust for Life," the artist was also the subject of Don McLean's 1972 hit song "Vincent," and this year's "Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent Van Gogh" from film maker Paul Cox.

Movie makers, biographers, physicians and others have drawn heavily on four published volumes of Van Gogh's letters. (Cox once remarked that it was a good thing Van Gogh didn't have a telephone.) There have been about 35 books written about him, and a Dutch psychologist once counted up 67 psychiatric analyses of Van Gogh's illness.

Why such interest?

"He wrote letters almost daily to his brother, so you have clinical data," explains Baltimore psychiatrist Russell Monroe, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. "It's sort of like having him on your couch and listening to him free associate."

Monroe and others have linked the thujone in absinthe to epileptic-type seizures, and biochemist Arnold feels it was Van Gogh's terror of future fits with hallucinations that probably led to his suicide at age 37.

And, according to art historian Aaron Sheon at the University of Pittsburgh, Van Gogh knew how absinthe affected him but kept drinking it anyway.

Sheon, who has just completed a book on Van Gogh's attitude toward his illness, adds that one reason Van Gogh wrote all those letters was "he knew that critics and the public wanted to make him into a pathetic mad artist so he protected himself by writing letters logically and clearly throughout his illness."

The many working hypotheses for Van Gogh's illness have included everything from epilepsy, dementia and schizophrenia to sunstroke. Arnold tends to support the view that Van Gogh was a manic depressive, but Arnold's main point is not what he considers the painter's "congenital problems" but rather the chemicals that exacerbated those problems.

Arnold, a 52-year-old professor at the University of Kansas Medical Center, is also a student of art history and the history of medicine. He is currently working on a book about Paul Gachet, the physician and amateur artist who treated Van Gogh during the last few months of his life. It was while researching that book in France that Arnold came across the Thuja tree that was later moved from Van Gogh's grave to Gachet's garden. The tree is still growing, and Arnold calls it the "surrealist connection" between thujone and Van Gogh. "It's just a coincidence but a very paradoxical one."

Times librarian Greg Rice contributed to the research in this article.

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