On Dec. 23, 1888, Vincent van Gogh cut off his left ear. A year and half later, after suffering subsequent breakdowns and spending time in an asylum, the artist died of a gunshot wound—an apparent suicide.
The world has wondered ever since what ailed him. Recently, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam created a full exhibition and sponsored a symposium of international experts to explore that question.
The exhibition, “On the Verge of Insanity,” featured a collection of van Gogh's paintings, drawings, letters and other documents that depicted his internal struggle in his last 18 months of life.
“I well knew that one could break one's arms and legs before, and that then afterwards that one could get better, but I didn't know that one could break one's brain and that afterwards that got better too,” van Gogh wrote in a letter to his brother Theo on Jan. 28, 1889.
During the symposium, held in mid-September, historians and medical experts evaluated theories—bipolar disorder, epilepsy or schizophrenia, for starters—and weighed clues to van Gogh's illness. Part of their mission was to determine whether a diagnosis was even feasible.
It was not. Experts agreed that van Gogh suffered psychotic episodes, but they could not determine precisely why.
“It's difficult to make a diagnosis, so the real progress we've made is that specialists in the field are talking about it, and they've never done this before,” Louis van Tilborgh, an art history professor at the University of Amsterdam and researcher at the Van Gogh Museum, told the New York Times.
Dr. Félix Rey, an assistant physician at a hospital in Arles, France, who treated the newly single-eared van Gogh, thought it was epilepsy, brought on by too much coffee and booze and not enough food. But he never formally diagnosed the artist.