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December 28, 2013 at 7:01 AMComments: 0 Faves: 0

Van Gogh's Art: Color Mastery or Medical Malpractice?

By Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. More Blogs by This Author

This week, the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. unveiled an exciting new addition to its massive collection. Vincent  van Gogh's "Green Wheat Fields, Auvers" was acquired from a private collection and seen by the public for the first time since 1966.  This painting with aggressive brush stokes vibrantly reveals the motion of the wheat in the wind with swirls of green and yellow. The sky shows movement in a similar fashion. This particular van Gogh is of particular interest in art history in that it is the last work he completed before his untimely death in 1890. As an art lover of Dutch descent, van Gogh is one of my favorites.  I am also drawn to a interesting theory surrounding his work that intersects medicine, history and his particular style.

"Green Wheat Fields, Auvers" - van Gogh 1890

Van Gogh - The Early Years

Vincent van Gogh in his younger years oscillated between the two callings of ministry and art.  He dabbled with sketching and watercolor before his decision to devote himself to the art of oil painting. His first major works were lifelike portraits and scenes steeped in earth tones. In post-impressionist Europe, these works were hardly anything to talk about.

"Grandfather" - van Gogh 1881

"A Girl in White in the Woods" - van Gogh 1882

"Flower Beds" - van Gogh, 1883


"Shepherd with a Flock of Sheep" - van Gogh 1884

"The Potato Eaters" - van Gogh 1885

Van Gogh - The Evolution

In the last few years of van Gogh's life, his works took on a whole new persona.  The earthy tones made way for brilliant colors in whorls and patterns. The stillness in his landscapes awakened to movement and flow.  The appreciation for this mastery was never realized by van Gogh, however. History tells us that he died from a self-inflicted gunshot before his time at the age of 37, shrouded in depression and self-doubt.  Now, his paintings are among the most valuable works of all time.  Van Gogh's "Portrait of Dr. Gachet" sold in 1990 for and adjusted cost of $149,500,000, the sixth priciest painting in history. Several of his other paintings have topped the 100 million dollar mark at sale. No personal commentary exists though on how or why van Gogh had this artistic shift which brought such "mastery."

"Crown Imperial Fritillaries in a Copper Vase" van Gogh 1886

"Self Portrait" - van Gogh 1887


"Starry Night over the Rhone" - van Gogh 1888

"The Starry Night" - van Gogh 1889

"Worn Out" - van Gogh 1890

Vincent Willem van Gogh - March 30, 1853 - July, 29 1890

Where Inspiration Arose - The Theory

In vah Gogh's later years, around the time of his shift in painting, he was treated by and befriended his doctor, Paul Gachet. Van Gogh likely sought his physician/friend's help in treating his melancholy (depression). Unfortunately, Dr. Gachet practiced in a pitiful time in medicine when patients were often harmed more than they were helped. Oliver Wendell Holmes framed the times well with the following quote:

"I firmly believe that if the whole material medica, as now used, could be sunk to the bottom of the sea, it would be better for mankind-and all the worse for the fishes." 

It was common back then that if a medication actually worked for one condition to branch out its use as a "cure-all."  One such medication was an extract of the foxglove plant.  It was well known to be successful for a fainting condition called "dropsey."  We now know this condition as cardiogenic syncope, fainting due to a rhythm disturbance of the heart. And we now call this foxglove extract digitalis, a potent heart drug used to regulate heart rhythm and contraction. Van Gogh has proven to us that his doctor was fond of this extract in his immortalized brush strokes that shows Gachet with a bouquet of foxgloves in the background.

This is where things get interesting. 

The trouble with digitalis is that it has a very therapeutic window.  In other words, too little of the medication does not work while too much gives significant side effects and this sweet spot where the medication works is quite limited. For this reason, digitalis is rarely used thanks to recent advancements yielding safer drugs. When patients receive too much digitalis, they become "digitalis toxic," a condition characterized by fatigue, nausea, poor appetite, diarrhea, depression and some curious changes in vision. These vision changes are distortions of yellow/green halos around objects. 

Was van Gogh poisoned by his doctor in an inadvertent effort to help with is maladies? Was he aided with this mishap to create some of the most admired art in history?  Did this misuse of medication not only fail to help his depression but worsen it, leading to his suicide?  We will never know the answers to these questions, but circumstantial evidence adds up to some interesting hypotheses.

The Moral of This Story?

I love to think about the possibilities of this story.  Indeed, art is both subjective and an expression of our senses. The story also reminds me frequently of the power of the medicines we take. Medicines walk a fine line between help and harm, panacea and poison.  The Latin axiom that we practice by primum non nocere, first do no harm, is an important reminder that in our efforts to help our ailments, we should be extremely considerate about what we put into our body.  That pill may not only fail to help your condition, but it may cause you more harm.  And in an age of polypharmacy where people take several medications together, the potential for interactions becomes magnified.  Medications are important tools to improve our health, but as with most tools, they must be used properly in order to give benefit.  Learn from van Gogh-- question your doctors, talk to your pharmacists and read labels on the medications you put in your body.

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