He suffered from hereditary mental illness for most of his life, but such is the drink's reputation that it always seems to be blamed for his self-abusive behaviour. But the extent of his absinthe intake, and its influence on his work and behaviour is unknown. Most scholars agree that he was an avid drinker, addicted to a number of substances, even paint thinner. He may also have been a victim of poisoning from digitalis, which at the time was a common treatment for epilepsy. This might account for the trademark halo effect in his depiction of light sources (digitalis can cause some users to become ultra-sensitive to light). The psychosis he is known to have experienced is more consistent with acute alcoholism than "absinthism".
Vincent van Gogh, born in Arles, France at March 30, 1853. Died in Auvers-sur-Oise July 29, 1890.
Further information and examples of van Gogh's absinthe related works will come soon.
During his last years we can see from his writings in letters to his dear brother, Theo, and others that he tries to hold off the drinking and absinthe in particular.
Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, Arles, 30 April 1889
At this point, I hope, we are permitted to protest against society and to defend ourselves.
We can be fairly sure that the Marseilles artist who committed suicide in no way did it under the influence of absinthe, for the simple reason that no one is likely to have offered him any and he could not have had anything to buy it with. Besides, he would not have drunk it purely for pleasure, but because, being ill already, he kept himself going with it.
Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, Arles, c. 21 April 1888
While I think of it, I want to tell you that more and more I doubt the truth of the legend of Monticelli drinking such enormous quantities of absinthe. When I look at his work, I can't think it possible that a man who was flabby with drink could have done that.
Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, Arles, 10 October 1888
I so often think of Monticelli, and when my mind dwells on the stories going around about his death, it seems to me that not only must you exclude the idea of his dying a drunkard in the sense of being besotted by drink, but you must also realise that here as a matter of course one spends one's life in the open air and in cafés far more than in the North. My friend the postman, for instance, lives a great deal in cafés, and is certainly more or less of a drinker, and has been so all his life. But he is so much the reverse of a sot, his exaltation is so natural, so intelligent, and he argues with such sweep, in the style of Garibaldi, that I gladly reduce the legend of Monticelli the drunkard on absinthe to exactly the same proportions as my postman's.
Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, Arles, c. 21 April 1889
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.
Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Wilhelmina van Gogh, Saint-Rémy, c. 20-22 October 1889
That physician here has been to Paris, and went to see Theo; he told him that he did not consider me a lunatic, but that the crises I have are of an epileptic nature. Consequently alcohol is also not the cause, though it must be understood that it does me no good either. But it is difficult to return to one's ordinary way of life while one is too despondent over the uncertainty of misfortune. And one goes on clinging to the affections of the past.
Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Mr. and Mrs. Ginoux, Auvers-sur-Oise, c. 12 June 1890
Besides, it is a certain fact that I have done better work than before since I stopped drinking, and that is so much gained.
Written by Markus Hartsmar
Many writers "of old" wrote poems or passages about absinthe. Some drank it, some didn't. Find some of them here as well as reviews and notes on modern books about absinthe.
The Absinthe Poetry section has seen several updates the past days. Poems and information about more authors; Antonin Artaud, Arthur Symons, Francis Saltus Saltus, Florence Folsom and Robert Loveman. Open your mind and have a drink while you enjoy their lyrics.
It's the new bistro, the new bar in town. A good place to meet when meeting in real life isn't always an option. Meet me on facebook for more updates from the absinthe world.