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Drug And Alcohol Abuse Has A Long History Among
Artists— Including Some Of The Most Celebrated

Overdoses, substance abuse and alcoholism are issues of intense media attention, heightened by the death of Michael Jackson. Substance abuse has a long history among artists and may have played a significant role in the creation of one of the world’s most famous works of art.

Vincent van Gogh, born on March 30, 1853, in Zundert, the Netherlands, died by his own hand in France, at the age of 37. During his short life, he produced more than 800 works of art, including drawings and paintings. By comparison, Rembrandt produced around 300 pieces during his lifetime.

Van Gogh was a driven man, who suffered from epilepsy and mental problems. It is believed that over-prescribed medication, mental health issues, toxins in his artist’s materials, the abuse of absinthe, and his physical health, possibly contributed to not only his large body of work, but also his dominant use of yellow.

For example, the most striking feature in Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” is the yellow corona surrounding each star. Was this Van Gogh’s creativity, or could it have been drug induced?

Due to his lack of funds and the fact that art supplies were hard to come by, van Gogh valued his paints and brushes highly and kept them close, in fact very close.

At the end of his painting sessions, he routinely cleaned his brushes in kerosene, wrapped them in a camphor soaked cloth, put them under his pillow, and slept on them. (Interesting combination of chemicals to sleep on.) This repeated exposure could account for some of van Gogh’s mental health issues, possibly his obsessive behavior, may have caused him to see halos around objects.

Another known habit of Vincent’s was that he was fond of dark absinthe and did indulge in this liqueur regularly. Absinthe contains thujone, a product that may cause the consumer to see all objects with a yellow hue. However, investigations show that a person must drink 182 liters of absinthe to produce this visual effect. Odds are, if you drink 182 liters of any liqueur your vision will be affected. I believe the absinthe theory can be discounted.

A third explanation, overmedication with digitalis, has great validity, and bears close attention. People receiving large and repeated doses of this drug often see the world with a yellow-blue tint. They complain of seeing yellow spots surrounded by coronas, much like those in van Gogh’s “The Starry Night.”

The artist’s physician, Paul-Ferndinand Gachet, may have treated van Gogh’s epilepsy and/or mania with digitalis, the drug that is extracted from the purple foxglove plant. This treatment was a common practice at that time, and Dr. Gachet is known to have written extensively on the use of digitalis. Van Gogh paid Gachet for his services with oil portraits, two of which show the doctor with the foxglove plant.

In addition to epilepsy and mental illness, Van Gogh suffered from many other physical ailments, including gonorrhea, syphilis, and sunstroke. The yellow tone in his paintings might have come from any combination of his illnesses, physical and mental, and the drugs with which he was treated. No one will ever know if van Gogh’s unique style was purely the result of his creative genius, or a consequence of being overmedicated.

However, most agree, Vincent van Gogh’s work was, and is — masterful art.




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