The Frontal Cortex

Van Gogh

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.

Via Vaughan


  1. #1 Frank Habets
    August 8, 2008

    That painting looks fine to me –but then I have red-green colour blindness. The hair and stache are ‘brown’ to me, and the face is regular caucasian flesh tone.
    Maybe Van Gogh was colour-blind too?

  2. #2 S.E.Hendriksen
    August 8, 2008

    Hi Jon

    This painting “Portrait of Dr. Felix Rey” 1889 is a very important van Gogh painting.

    Believe it ot not: It’s a 3/4 self-portrait and 1/4 portrait…Vincent painted it when he left the hospital, so Dr. Rey was NOT the sitter, but Vincent was…..use the buttons on the jacket as the fixing point. The body is mirrored, so it’s actually at Vincent selfportrait ‘body painting’ with Dr. Rey’s head on top.

    That’s why it’s a very important painting by Vincent

    Kind regards from
    The coolest place in the world….Greenland

  3. #3 Doris Egan
    August 9, 2008

    The painting looks fairly normal-colored to me, too, and I’m not color-blind. I can detect some green and some red used as shading, but the basic effect is of dark hair and a slightly sallow, Caucasian face. Maybe Dr. Rey was talking about seeing an early glimpse of the painting, when the colors meant as undertones were all that were there? Otherwise, I’m not sure how to explain it. Even if Rey were accustomed to a more realistic style, his phrasing is odd — “blazing red”? I mean, it’s just not.

  4. #4 Jay C
    August 9, 2008

    Yes, it is a little puzzling: looking at Van Gogh’s painting of Dr. Rey as reproduced here, it is hard to see the color of his hair as “blazing” or the green of the background (?wallpaper?) as “biting” – buut there might be at least two simple explanations for this:

    1. The colors may have faded/altered in 120 years, and may not be quite as vivid as when Van Gogh first painted them (especially if the canvas has never been restored)

    2. The colors as we “see” them here are an artifact of multiple levels of reproduction (painting>photograph>digitalization>reproduction on a computer screen); and the hues of the original picture may be quite different from how they appear on a blog.

    As usual with artworks, only a face-to-face encounter with the actual object will tell for sure….

  5. #5 David Baird
    August 10, 2008

    Jay C
    To just add to your points, I wonder too at how the subjective experience of his paintings has changed since then. I have difficulty imagining why the Impressionists paintings caused riots when first shown at the end of the 19th century. They seem so delicate and dreamlike to me.

  6. #6 Nancy Martinez A.
    March 14, 2009

    I invite you to comment in our Vincent Van Gogh’s Group in Face Book!
    I like your study and we have a new discuss board about Vincent’s psychology.

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