Vincent van Gogh, a brilliant painter and a raging alcoholic

Vincent van Gogh drinking absinthe in a bar. This painting was made by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Vincent van Gogh drinking absinthe in a bar. This painting was made by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) was without a doubt one of the greatest painters in history. Nowadays his work is sold for millions all over the world. The Dutch artist is also known for his depressions that lead to him cutting off his own ear and probably suicide. Although in recent years there is a theory that the painter might not have taken his own life. There is no doubt that Van Gogh drunk quite a lot during the 37 years he was alive. The booze might have played his part in his unpredictable character and Van Gogh even had hallucinations and delusions, but eating paint and drinking turpentine also didn’t make him too stable.

Vincent van Gogh was not exactly living what most people nowadays call a healthy lifestyle. Basically his diet contained huge quantities of coffee, cigarettes and alcohol. His favorite drink was absinthe, also known as the green fairy since it was known to give people a delirium. One theory is that a chemical compound in this drink called thujone lead to Van Gogh’s death, as he was already suffering from a manic depression. Nibbling on his own paint probably didn’t help either. In fact we would give alcohol way too much credit to say that this drove the painter insane and into his death. Yes, from the lettres he wrote to his brother Theo we can conclude that Van Gogh was a raging alcoholic. But among the hypotheses about his medical conditions we also find Ménière’s disease, epilepsy, bipolar disorder, sunstroke, acute intermittent porphyria and lead poisoning.

On the other hand there is no doubt that the enormous amounts of absinthe Van Gogh drank had a (positive) impact on his painting. It is said that the Dutchman had an amazing memory that could recall everything he ever read or seen. So one may presume that the experiences with the green fairy were not lost after sobering up. Van Gogh in many works used the pale green color of absinthe. He also produced many paintings that showed his favorite bar or himself drinking the green liquor. Other great painters from the 19th and 20th century like Edgar Degas, Paul GaugainÉdouard Manet and Pablo Picasso did the same, but still Van Gogh is seen as the biggest ambassador of absinthe, which was prohibited in many countries for decades. As a matter of fact Van Gogh’s madness was used as proof that the drink was evil.

Van Gogh's painting A Still Life with Absinthe.

Van Gogh’s painting A Still Life with Absinthe.

The time that Van Gogh was living in Arles with Gaugain is considered to be the peak of his drinking career. While constantly under the influence of absinthe he was living an eccentric lifestyle. For example he had the habbit of painting outside at night, just using the light of some candles he attached to his hat. In 1889 the people of the town were so frightened of his weird behaviour that they signed a petition to force Van Gogh out. This was after he cut off his own ear and Van Gogh was sent to a sanitarium in December 1888. Van Gogh left this bodypart at a brothel he and Gaugain used to visit a lot to a girl named Rachel with the words “keep this object like a treasure”. It’s said that before this act of madness he and Gaugain had a fight because the Frenchman wanted to leave Arles.

One year after he was kicked out of Arles Van Gogh died in Auvers-sur-Oise. Fact is that he died of a gun shot, if it was indeed suicide has never been proven without a doubt. A biography Van Gogh – The Life from 2011 suggests he might have been shot by accident by a teenager named René Secrétan, who had a fascination for the Wild West and a history of bullying Van Gogh. However he died, like many great artists he died too soon. But even after a short life Van Gogh left the world a great deal of masterpieces, that are admired all over the planet. It’s clear that the man’s brilliance matched his madness. Although he did get a little help from the green fairy of course.

Micky Bumbar

More drinkers that left their mark on the world’s history

18 thoughts on “Vincent van Gogh, a brilliant painter and a raging alcoholic

  1. you really did your homework on this artist. I was intrigued about his time in France, also and had done some study on him.

    He was such a depressed guy and I think he was self medicating for his illnesses. I almost cry for him when i ponder the misery he must’ve been under.



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    • You are absolutely right mate. “Terpentine” is the Dutch word for turpentine. I’ll change it right away. Thanks for the heads up.


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