The illness of Vincent van Gogh

Am J Psychiatry. 2002 Apr;159(4):519-26. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.159.4.519.


Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) had an eccentric personality and unstable moods, suffered from recurrent psychotic episodes during the last 2 years of his extraordinary life, and committed suicide at the age of 37. Despite limited evidence, well over 150 physicians have ventured a perplexing variety of diagnoses of his illness. Henri Gastaut, in a study of the artist's life and medical history published in 1956, identified van Gogh's major illness during the last 2 years of his life as temporal lobe epilepsy precipitated by the use of absinthe in the presence of an early limbic lesion. In essence, Gastaut confirmed the diagnosis originally made by the French physicians who had treated van Gogh. However, van Gogh had earlier suffered two distinct episodes of reactive depression, and there are clearly bipolar aspects to his history. Both episodes of depression were followed by sustained periods of increasingly high energy and enthusiasm, first as an evangelist and then as an artist. The highlights of van Gogh's life and letters are reviewed and discussed in an effort toward better understanding of the complexity of his illness.

Publication types

  • Biography
  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Bipolar Disorder / history*
  • Epilepsy, Temporal Lobe / history*
  • Famous Persons*
  • History, 19th Century
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Medicine in the Arts*
  • Netherlands
  • Paintings / history*
  • Suicide / history*

Personal name as subject

  • Vincent van Gogh