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October 20, 1993

Vincent van Gogh: Chemicals, Crises, and Creativity

Author Affiliations

Georgetown University School of Medicine Washington, DC

JAMA. 1993;270(15):1870-1871. doi:10.1001/jama.1993.03510150106046

The popularity of Vincent van Gogh a century after his death attests to his unique artistic genius. The tragic details of his life, his self-mutilation, and his suicide have prompted speculation about the underlying illness that drove a gifted artist to self-destruction and raised the question of whether his vision of the world was colored by it, literally. Was van Gogh a great artist despite, or because of, his infirmity?

Wilfred N. Arnold, a biochemist who has published six books on Vincent van Gogh's medical history, has written in Vincent van Gogh: Chemicals, Crises, and Creativity a thorough account of van Gogh's health, the likely etiology of his symptoms, and alternate hypotheses. He introduces information gradually, until the proposed diagnosis, acute intermittent porphyria, is revealed. The work is a synthesis of medical history, art history, biography, and science. Each chapter begins with a lavish reproduction of a painting by or