Vincent van Gogh drank alcohol to excess; more specifically he drank the potent liquor absinthe, also known as “the green fairy,” which was believed to cause delirium and hallucinations. Absinthe was also believed to cause a drinker to see yellow hue around objects, which some say can be seen in paintings such as Starry Night. However, more recent research has shown that the amount of absinthe consumed would need to be quite substantial to reach this effect, so this was probably not the explanation for Van Gogh’s yellows. The drinking of absinthe was quite common amongst the artist crowd of Van Gogh’s time, so his consumption of the beverage was no surprise.
There is some debate about the health problems that plagued Van Gogh’s life; however, no matter the correct diagnoses, alcohol is sure to have exacerbated the issue. Many scholars believe that his work and his letters show the signs of an absinthe alcoholic. Van Gogh knew the drink affected him, but he chose to drink it anyway.
In a letter to Theo on June 29, 1888, Van Gogh said,
“After that, the only thing to bring ease and distraction, in my case and other people’s too, is to stun oneself with a lot of drinking or heavy smoking.”
Alcohol is sure to have played a role in Van Gogh’s unpredictable behavior as well as his hallucinations and delusions. Though it was believed to have medicinal qualities, absinthe was prohibited for several years in a number of countries and they used Van Gogh’s ‘madness’ as proof of the evils of the substance. Fellow artist, Cezanne said to Van Gogh, “Sir, you paint like a madman.” Van Gogh too, admitted some of his madness might have been caused by his drinking,
“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.”
It is believed that the time in Arles while in the Yellow House with Paul Gauguin, Van Gogh’s drinking reached its peak. He lived an eccentric lifestyle while constantly consuming absinthe. He would paint outdoors at night with a candle on his hat, he cut off a portion of his ear and left it at a brothel for a girl named Rachel telling her to “keep this object like a treasure”. Following the incident he was sent to a sanitarium. The people of Arles signed a petition to force Van Gogh from town.