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Van Gogh’s delirium caused by alcohol withdrawal, not syphilis, study says

His body wanted a drink so bad, it cost him his ear.

An article published in the International Journal of Bipolar Disorders on Monday puts forward the theory that Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh’s poor mental health and eventual suicide were likely caused not by syphilis or schizophrenia — previously proposed explanations — but alcohol withdrawal paired with malnutrition.

To reach this conclusion, the study’s authors, based in the Netherlands, analyzed 902 letters from van Gogh’s correspondence — mostly with his brother Theo — about “what he was experiencing in his life, including his mental problems.” They also worked closely with three art historians who are experts on van Gogh.

Based on their research, the study authors created a timeline of van Gogh’s declining health in his tortured but prolific final years, and explained how his delirium became so extreme. In the four years leading up to him fatally shooting himself in 1890, they charted, van Gogh became an alcoholic, imbibing massive amounts of wine and absinthe, while also eating and sleeping poorly — before abruptly going sober. This, they concluded, likely led to him becoming psychotic and famously cutting off his left ear and gifting it to a woman in a brothel. “[The] ear incident,” the researchers write, “was actually alcohol-withdrawal delirium.”

The alcohol withdrawal and poor lifestyle were also paired with numerous underlying mental health issues van Gogh is suspected of having for most of his life. “Since young adulthood, he likely developed a (probably bipolar) mood disorder in combination with (traits of) a borderline personality disorder,” the authors wrote.

That van Gogh was able to create even during the most difficult periods of his life is a testament to his artistic tenacity.

“Despite all these problems which contributed to his illnesses, we however also would like to stress that van Gogh was not only a great and very influential painter but also an intelligent man with an enormous willpower, resilience and perseverance,” the authors write. “He must have had a strong constitution.”

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