Thujone – The Terpene in Wormwood

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Van Gogh Myth & Thujone

Van Gogh Absinthe

Another possible explanation for van Gogh’s xanthopsia was his excessive ingestion of absinthe. Van Gogh’s taste for absinthe (a liqueur) may have also influenced his style of painting. The drink’s effect comes from the chemical thujone. Distilled from plants such as wormwood, thujone poisons the nervous system. Van Gogh had a pica (or hunger) for unnatural “foods,” craving the entire class of fragrant but dangerous chemicals called terpenes, including thujone. As van Gogh recovered from cutting off his ear, he wrote to his brother: “I fight this insomnia with a very, very strong dose of camphor in my pillow and mattress, and if ever you can’t sleep, I recommend this to you.” Camphor is a terpene known to cause convulsions in animals when inhaled. Van Gogh had at least 4 such fits in his last 18 months of life.

Van Gogh’s friend and fellow artist Paul Signac described an evening in 1889 when he had to restrain the painter from drinking turpentine. The solvent contains a terpene distilled from the sap of pines and firs. Van Gogh tried more than once to eat his paints, which contained terpenes as well. Signac also wrote that van Gogh, returning after spending the whole day in the torrid heat, would take his seat on the terrace of a cafe, with the absinthe and brandies following each other in quick succession. Toulouse-Lautrec drank absinthe from a hollowed walking stick. Degas immortalized absinthe in his bleary-eyed painting, Absinthe Drinker. Van Gogh nursed a disturbed mind on the aquamarine liqueur, which may have encouraged him to amputate his ear.

Paul L. Wolf, MD from the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the University of California, San Diego, in Archives of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine: Vol. 129, No. 11, pp. 1457-1464. November 2005)