Vincent van Gogh’s Migraine: A Strangely Starry Night

   When Brilliance and Illness Collide

van gogh's migraine

People with Migraine are capable of amazing feats – sometimes, even brilliance. Vincent van Gogh is one of the most famous, most talented painters whose life was plagued by illness and tragedy.

Neurology and psychiatry were lacking in the mid 1800s, so van Gogh’s official diagnoses are not known. It is suspected, however, that the painter suffered from epilepsy, severe migraines, bipolar disorder, and/or porphyria.

Some of the most remarkable pieces of van Gogh’s career were painted near the end of his life at the Saint Paul Asylum in the Saint-Remy-De-Provence. van Gogh suffered from dizziness, headaches, seizures, and “nervousness” that ultimately led to his checking himself into the institution.

In his book Migraine, Dr. Britt Talley Daniel writes that Migraine was considered a form of mild insanity at the time, and van Gogh was being treated for his ‘Migraine personality’ at St. Remy.

van Gogh’s Migraine Becomes Art

van gogh's migraine

Like many artists plagued with pain, van Gogh found solace and relief in his art. He wrote to his sister “…it is a relief to paint a picture and, without it, I should be more miserable than I am.”

During his year at St. Remy, van Gogh turned his suffering and pain into more than 150 paintings. He found solace and inspiration in the garden of the asylum and in the surrounding countryside. While he was extremely productive during this time, van Gogh also suffered attacks of illness that left him unable to work for months.

van gogh's migraine trees

Art enthusiasts have speculated that the halos, swirling patterns, and colors of paintings like Starry Night and Trees in the Garden in Front of the Entrance to Saint-Paul Hospital (right) are representations of van Gogh’s migraine auras. Certainly, the swimming, dreamy feeling of some of his paintings is similar to what many of us experience in an aura.

Despite debilitating illness, van Gogh remained creative and clued into the beauty around him. Although his illness(es) eventually contributed to his early death by suicide at the age of 37, van Gogh fought his ill-health the best he could, painting masterpiece after masterpiece even as he waited anxiously for another attack.

In the spring of 1889, shortly after arriving at the hospital in St. Remy for treatment, van Gogh wrote in a letter to his brother Theo:

“As for me, my health is good, and as for the head it will, let’s hope, be a matter of time and patience.”

Learn more about the collision of Migraine and brilliance on the Migraine Again Podcast

Comments? Did you know about van Gogh’s migraine attacks? Do his paintings remind you of a migraine aura?

Image: flickr/Dhilung Kirat (close up photograph of van Gogh’s self-portrait from the Museum of The Art Institute of Chicago)

Paintings are Public Domain

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