The Absinthe Drinkers: Vincent Van Gogh, 1853-1890

The Absinthe Drinkers: Vincent Van Gogh, 1853-1890

He suffered from hereditary mental illness for most of his life, but such is the drink’s reputation that it always seems to be blamed for his self-abusive behaviour. But the extent of his absinthe intake, and its influence on his work and behaviour is unknown. Most scholars agree that he was an avid drinker, addicted to a number of substances, even paint thinner. He may also have been a victim of poisoning from digitalis, which at the time was a common treatment for epilepsy. This might account for the trademark halo effect in his depiction of light sources (digitalis can cause some users to become ultra-sensitive to light). The psychosis he is known to have experienced is more consistent with acute alcoholism than “absinthism”.
( by Markus Hartsmar)

Vincent Van Gogh, The Drinkers, 1890 ^

* This Vincent van Gogh painting was based on an earlier lithograph by an artist that Van Gogh greatly admired: Honoré Daumier.

< Honoré Daumier, Physiology of the Drinker; The Four Ages, 1862

Vincent2Bvan2BGoghLetter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, Arles, 30 April 1889

At this point, I hope, we are permitted to protest against society and to defend ourselves. We can be fairly sure that the Marseilles artist who committed suicide in no way did it under the influence of absinthe, for the simple reason that no one is likely to have offered him any and he could not have had anything to buy it with. Besides, he would not have drunk it purely for pleasure, but because, being ill already, he kept himself going with it.

Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, Arles, c. 21 April 1889

Meanwhile you do understand that if alcohol has undoubtedly been one of the great causes of my madness, then it came on very slowly and will go away slowly too, assuming it does go, of course. Or the same thing if it comes from smoking. But I should only hope that it – this recovery [probably a word has been omitted here] the frightful superstition of some people on the subject of alcohol, so that they prevail upon themselves never to drink or smoke.

Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Wilhelmina van Gogh, Saint-Rémy, c. 20-22 October 1889

That physician here has been to Paris, and went to see Theo; he told him that he did not consider me a lunatic, but that the crises I have are of an epileptic nature. Consequently alcohol is also not the cause, though it must be understood that it does me no good either. But it is difficult to return to one’s ordinary way of life while one is too despondent over the uncertainty of misfortune. And one goes on clinging to the affections of the past.

^ Vincent van Gogh, Still Life with Absinthe, 1887


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