Over a century after his death, iconic artist Vincent Van Gogh reminds us that epilepsy is often a hidden condition.
In July, much of the world was shocked to hear that a previously hidden Van Gogh self-portrait had been found on the reverse of one of his paintings. The portrait, discovered by curators at the Scottish National Gallery, received international media attention and critical acclaim.
But for the Epilepsy Society, it held a very different kind of interest. Van Gogh was diagnosed with epilepsy and wrote frequently about the condition. There is a certain symmetry to an artist diagnosed with epilepsy “hiding” a self-portrait behind another artwork. Epilepsy is often viewed as a hidden disability because it is not usually obvious that someone has the condition unless they have a seizure.
Not all symptoms of epilepsy are apparent to others and of course, seizures are not the only aspect of epilepsy. Many people with epilepsy experience memory issues and there is a heightened risk of depression and anxiety. Even seizures can be very subtle with the person looking confused, distant or not engaging with their environment. Observers may not be aware that this is due to epilepsy. In the same way that Van Gogh’s portrait could not stay hidden forever, we hope that epilepsy as a condition will emerge from the shadows and gain greater awareness amongst the general public.
The Van Gogh Gallery notes that the Dutchman’s doctors believed (opens in external website) he had temporal lobe epilepsy, a claim backed up (opens in external website) by Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum. Experts have also said that Van Gogh’s use of digitalis to treat epilepsy may have contributed to his love of bright colours. One side-effect of digitalis is that the patient sees the world through a yellow-tinted lens. The Sunflowers, anyone?
While Van Gogh is usually listed as the most famous historical figure with epilepsy, there have been many other world-leading artists, politicians and scientists with the condition. From Julius Caesar to Prince and from Socrates to Lewis Carroll, there is evidence that many iconic individuals had epilepsy.
By sheer coincidence, our Policy and Public Affairs Manager, Nathan, happened to be visiting Edinburgh for a few days and was fortunate to get advance tickets to see the Van Gogh self-portrait, making him one of the first people in the world to do so. Nathan attended the special press preview of “A Taste for Impressionism: Modern French Art from Millet to Matisse” to see the rediscovered artwork.
It was only when conducting an X-ray of the Van Gogh painting “Head of a Peasant Woman” that staff at the Scottish National Gallery discovered the outline of a ghostly bearded man in a brimmed hat. It soon became clear that this mysterious figure was none other than Van Gogh himself. As an impoverished artist, he reused canvases in order to save money, simply turning the canvas over and painting on the reverse. There are currently eight known self-portraits of Van Gogh painted on the back of other works. When the Head of a Peasant Woman was lent to an exhibition in Amsterdam in 1905, it is believed they stuck the canvas on cardboard and framed it, thus hiding the self-portrait for well over a century.
Van Gogh died in 1890, at a time when understanding of epilepsy was very different. Just two years later, the Epilepsy Society was founded in Chalfont St Peter, Buckinghamshire and in the lifetime of the Society we have seen many changes. While, sadly, the stigma affecting people with epilepsy remains, there is much greater awareness than in Van Gogh’s day.
Van Gogh led a troubled life, but he was also one of the world’s greatest artists. He continues to remind us of the importance of shining a light on the hidden parts of life.