Famous Migraineurs: Vincent Van Gogh
Vincent van Gogh, born in Groot-Zundert, Holland, on March 30, 1853 may have suffered from Migraine or another headache disorder during his short, yet prolific art career. Certainly, there were references to “headache” in his personal correspondence. Researchers speculate that Van Gogh also had bipolar disorder and epilepsy. Born to Theodorus Van Gogh, a minister, and his wife Anna Carbentus, he came from a large family of five siblings; Theodorus, Cornelius, Anna, Elizabeth and Withelmein. The year before Vincent was born, his parents had another child, who was unfortunately stillborn. Van Gogh’s parent’s named this baby Vincent, then buried him near the family home, placing a tombstone with his namesake on it. This surely would have been a haunting memory for any child.
Van Gogh’s early education was spent in village schools, where he drew and painted on a regular basis. His mother was a great source of encouragement for him. During his pre-teen years he was sent to two different boarding schools where he did exceptionally well in French, German, and English. When he was 15, during the midst of his academic school year, he suddenly left school and returned home, never finishing any formal education.
From the time Van Gogh was 16 until he was 22y, he worked for Goupil and Company, where his uncle was an art dealer. He started with this firm at the branch at The Hague, then worked for a bit in London - where he was crushed by his first rejection of love - and continued on with the firm in an office in Paris. However, due to his gruffness and attitude, he was fired from each of these positions.
Van Gogh went back to England and began working at a small school where his spiritual enlightenment began to unfold. But this religious pull was strong for him, leaving him feeling the need to preach. Van Gogh worked at a bookstore, but left this job to join the ministry. His post was at an extremely destitute mining town in Belgium, where it appeared he had a deep understanding for the miners. He went so far as to give away all his clothing and sleep on the floor with them. The miners didn’t see him in the same light, thinking it was all very odd. It’s been reported he may have had his first spiritual crisis during this period, 1879 - 1880. Maybe this is when he suffered his first bipolar episode, as he exhibited other extreme behavior during this time and eventually lost this job there too.
At the age of 27, and after several failed jobs, he discovered his mission and passion in life was to become an artist - for the people. He was mostly self-taught, but did attend an art school in Brussels, where he studied anatomy and other painting basics and attended academic art school at The Hague. While there, he often wrote letters to his brother Theo, who was his favorite, keeping him updated on his life, including his health,
"I have not been well, and have been in bed for almost three days with fever and nervousness, now and then accompanied by headache and toothache."4
Van Gogh complained of other health issues such as dizziness, and,
"I don’t feel the weakness so much; but it overtakes me occasionally during the intervals when I am not in front of my easel. Sometimes it’s a kind of dizziness, and at times a headache too. Well, it’s nothing but weakness. I have repeatedly put off taking more nourishing food because there were other things more pressing, but it has lasted a little too long."5
After learning and refining his technique at The Hague, his uncle Cornelis commissioned him to paint 12 different views of The Hague. During the mid 1880’s, after moving around quite a bit, he lived with his brother Theodorus in Paris. He was introduced to other great artists such as Gauguin, Monet, and Pissarro. It is these Impressionist artists who discussed art with him at length, especially Gauguin, with whom he had a unique friendship. Spending time talking and studying painting and life with fellow artists was inspiring to him, and his painting style began to change. He started using brighter colors and more brush-like strokes in his paintings.
Unfortunately, these years were not always happy for Van Gogh. He had occasional breaks with reality, including the infamous ear event. It’s been said he was quarrelling with Gauguin when an argument became heated and Van Gogh attacked him with an open blade. Gauguin was able to stop him, but in a mental break, Van Gogh cut off a portion of his own ear. A different account says Gauguin cut off Van Gogh’s ear with a sword. Either way, Van Gogh admitted responsibility for this action and was admitted to Saint Remy-de Provence in France, a mental health institution. Even going through his mental breaks, he never seemed to stop painting. While in Saint Remy, it’s been said that he painted over 150 paintings during that year. This includes his famous Starry Night. In a letter written to his brother Theo in 1888, Van Gogh says,
“My poor boy, our neurosis. etc., comes, it’s true, from our way of living, which is too purely the artist’s life, but it is also a fatal inheritance, since in civilization the weakness increases from generation to generation. If we want to face the real truth about our constitution, we must acknowledge that we belong to the number of the who suffer from a neurosis which is already has its roots in the past.”
Van Gogh led a difficult, lonely, but creative life. He was besieged by lifelong mental instability, health issues and feelings of disappointment in his career. Due to his misery and mental state, Van Gogh walked into a field and shot himself. He survived, walked to his rented room and died two days later with his favorite brother at his side, as he had been all during his life.
1 Blumer, D. “The illness of Vincent van Gogh.” American Journal of Psychiatry. 2002 Apr;159(4):519-26.
2 Smith, Philip E. M. “If It’s Not Epilepsy.” Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry. 2001;70(suppl II):ii9-ii14
3 Advameg, Inc. “_Vincent Van Gogh Biograph_y.” Encyclopedia of World Biography.
4 Letter. Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh. The Hague. January 26, 1882.
5 Letter. Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh. The Hague. March 28, 2011.
6 Van Gogh Museum. “Overview.” Amsterdam.
Nancy wrote for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Migraine.