Still life with Absinthe (1887)

Absinthe was a popular drink among artists and Vincent van Gogh enjoyed his glass of the toxic beverage. The yellow color inspired a lot of artists. Some researchers believe that Vincent’s love for absinthe caused his psychological problems.

Van Gogh cut off his ear lobe on one of his ears during a psychotic episode on December 24, 1888. Mental problems afflicted him, particularly in the last few years of his life. During some of these periods, he did not paint or was not allowed to. There has been much debate over the years as to the source of Van Gogh’s mental illness and its effect on his work.

Over 150 psychiatrists have attempted to label his illness, and some 30 different diagnoses have been suggested. Diagnoses that have been put forward include schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, syphilis, poisoning from swallowed paints, temporal lobe epilepsy, and acute intermittent porphyria. Any of these could have been the culprit and been aggravated by malnutrition, overwork, insomnia, a fondness for alcohol, and absinthe in particular.

Medical theories have even been proposed to explain Van Gogh’s use of the color yellow. One theory holds that Van Gogh’s color vision might have been affected by his love of absinthe, a liquor that contains a neurotoxin called thujone. High doses of thujone can cause xanthopsia: seeing objects in yellow. However, a 1991 study indicated that an absinthe drinker would become unconscious from the alcohol content long before consuming enough thujone to develop a yellow vision.

Another theory suggests that Dr. Gachet might have prescribed digitalis to Van Gogh as a treatment for epilepsy. There is no direct evidence that he ever took digitalis, but he did paint Gachet with some cut flower stalks of Common Foxglove, the plant from which the drug is derived. Those who take large doses of digitalis often report yellow-tinted vision or yellow spots surrounded by coronas, like those in The Starry Night.

Current Location: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands