Vincent Van Gogh: did he have ADD / ADHD?
In a letter, written in English and currently on display in London, Van Gogh describes procrastination and hyperfocusing:
“My dear Russell…for ever so long I have been wanting to write to you – but then the work has so taken me up. We have harvest time here at present and I am always in the fields…when I sit down to write I am so abstracted by recollections of what I have seen that I leave the letter. For instance at the present occasion I was writing to you and going to say something about Arles as it is…instead of continuing the letter I began to draw on the very paper the head of a…little girl I saw this afternoon whilst I was painting a view of the river with a greenish yellow sky.”
There is also a suggestion of the regret and self-blame which many adults with ADD / ADHD experience:
“I enclose the slip of scribbling, that you may judge of my abstractions and forgive my not writing before as such.”
Van Gogh calls his subjective inability to control and focus attention his “abstractions”, and he refers to this again towards the end of the letter:
“I must hurry off this letter for I feel some more abstractions coming on and if I did not quickly fill up my paper I would again set to drawing and you would not have your letter.”
Biographies of Van Gogh do not provide much detail of his earliest childhood years, but in his late teens and twenties he certainly showed a restlessness and impulsivity in work and relationships which would be compatible with ADD / ADHD. A more difficult question is whether treatment, in perhaps enabling him to combine his artistic talents with just a little commercial success in his lifetime, would have dulled his creativity. I don’t think so, because that is not what ADD / ADHD treatment appears to do, when used properly.
This letter to John Peter Russell, written in April 1888, was on display at the Royal Academy in London when this piece was written. The exhibition was called The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters.
The letter can be viewed online at Amsterdam‘s Van Gogh Museum site: http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let598/letter.html