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Art and Images in Psychiatry |

The Starry Night (La Nuit Etoilée)

James C. Harris, MD
Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2002;59(11):978-979. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.59.11.978.
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Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), Dutch, The Starry Night, 1889. Oil on canvas. 29 × 36¼ in. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest.

Vincent was initially hospitalized in Arles on December 24, 1888, after the notorious episode when he apparently threatened Gauguin with a razor and, later that night, cut off the lower part of his own left ear. He presented the ear fragment to a prostitute; much as a matador does to his lady after the death of the bull, although he had no recollection of these events. Vincent suffered 3 attacks in Arles, from December 24, 1888, to January 19, 1889, from February 4 to February 18, 1899, and February 26 to mid April 1889. Although he seemed fully recovered between episodes and was treated by a local physician, 30 citizens of Arles petitioned the mayor asking that Vincent be returned to his family or committed to an asylum stating that "he does not dispose of his full mental faculties, that he indulges in excessive drinking after which he finds himself in such a state of excitement that he does not know what he says or does and that his instability inspires public fear."2 His friend Signac reported that Vincent ate hardly anything and what he drank was always too much. After spending a day in the blazing sun he would "take his seat on the terrace of a café. And the absinthes and brandies would follow each other in quick succession."2 During his episodes he reported both visual and auditory hallucinations, writing to his sister that he "didn't in the least know what I said, what I wanted, and what I did."1 When confronted with his neglect and alcohol use, he wrote to Theo: "I admit all that, but at the same time it is true that to attain the high yellow note that I attained last summer, I had to be pretty well keyed up."1

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Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), Dutch, The Starry Night, 1889. Oil on canvas. 29 × 36¼ in. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest.

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