Introduction to Van Gogh’s Diagnostic History: Diagnosing for whose sake?

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Introductory lecture to the Van Gogh Museum symposium 'On the Verge of Insanity: Van Gogh and his Illness', held on 14 and 15 September 2016 in Amsterdam. When you decide to immerse yourself in Van Gogh’s diagnostic history, you have to ask not only where it all begins but also – perhaps especially – where it all ends. Countless medical and psychological publications that seek to explain his illness have been published since his death. The posthumous diagnoses began to appear around the 1920s and are still being produced to this day. We have to view each of these attempts in the context of its time and its particular author: each writer had his or her own agenda and – not surprisingly – arrived at different conclusions. There is one important distinction we should make: Van Gogh’s own physicians wanted to diagnose his condition so that they could help him. The doctors, by contrast, who studied the case after the artist’s death were not concerned about his welfare, but in achieving a better understanding of Van Gogh and/or his art, for example. Or to identify a high-profile sufferer of a particular illness. There is an obvious and natural tendency for doctors to diagnose Van Gogh from within their own area of expertise, which means they were influenced by the dominant developments in their particular field. I would like to focus today on two elements within the overall research: 1. Firstly, the original diagnosis and its significance at the time: how did Van Gogh deal with it and did it help him at all? (In other words: a diagnosis as intended.) 2. And secondly, the 1920s, when his ‘posthumous diagnostic history’ began to develop; why was a particular diagnosis proposed and how sustainable did it turn out to be?
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2016
Externally publishedYes

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