Dr. Felix Rey was the first doctor to diagnose Vincent Van Gogh with epilepsy, after the artist was hospitalized following this bizarre incident:
When Gauguin left their house, van Gogh followed and approached him with an open razor, was repelled, went home, and cut off part of his left earlobe, which he then presented to Rachel, his favorite prostitute. The police were alerted; he was found unconscious at his home and was hospitalized. There he lapsed into an acute psychotic state with agitation, hallucinations, and delusions that required 3 days of solitary confinement. He retained no memory of his attacks on Gauguin, the self-mutilation, or the early part of his stay at the hospital.
At this point, Dr. Rey prescribed potassium bromide (still used as an anticonvulsive medication by veterinarians) and bed rest. After a few weeks, Van Gogh began to recover and started work on Self-Portrait With Bandaged Ear and Pipe, which captures his serenely confused mood. It didn’t take long, however, before the hallucinations and psychotic episodes returned. (It seems that Dr. Rey never told Van Gogh to avoid absinthe.) In May 1889, Van Gogh entered the mental asylum at Saint-Remy. A month later, he would complete his masterpiece Starry Night, which is a view of the stars from his hospital window.
In the latest issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry, there’s an interesting letter from Dr. Rey, describing the illness of the painter:
Vincent was above all a miserable, wretched man,… he would talk to me about complementary colours. But I really could not understand why red should not be red, and green not green!… When I saw that he outlined my head entirely in green (he had only two main colours, red and green), that he painted my hair and my mustache – I really did not have red hair – in a blazing red on a biting green background, I was simply horrified. What should I do with this present?
Here is the painting:
It’s a shame Dr. Rey didn’t keep the painting. Van Gogh’s portrait of his final doctor, Paul Gachet, was sold in 1990 for more than $82 million.