Legacy Artist: Vincent Van Gogh Facts
Happy Birthday Vincent Van Gogh! A Dutch post-impressionist artist, Van Gogh had tremendous influence on the development of Expressionism and on Western art as a whole. His most famous paintings include The Starry Night, Sunflowers, and Wheatfield with Crows, each of them featuring stunning use of colors and creative brushwork to make intricate textures. You undoubtedly already know of Vincent Van Gogh — seeing his artwork on the side of coffee mugs and printed on t-shirts. However, a relatively undiscussed aspect of his life is his mental health, and the often detrimental role it played.
Van Gogh was irrefutably plagued with some sort of illness — whether it be physical or mental — that impacted his relationships, his health, and most of all his art. However, there’s a pervasive idea amongst Van Gogh’s admirers that whatever mental illness he had fueled the output of his paintings and made him more creative. A romanticization of the concept of a “tortured artist” exists amongst Van Gogh admirers, as well as the art community as a whole, casting a shadow over the dangers and struggles faced by those battling mental illness. In reference to his poor mental health, Van Gogh wrote “If I could have worked without this accursed disease, what things I might have done.”
However, what mental illness did Van Gogh even have? There’s actually quite a lot of debate about this. It’s known he was afflicted with bouts of severe depression, manic episodes, and hallucinations. Various doctors have diagnosed him as having bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and even Thujone poisoning (a type of affliction that is caused by drinking too much absinthe — which Van Gogh did). However, the most popular diagnosis is that he had epilepsy. Many are unaware that epilepsy can actually cause hallucinations and anxiety. The illness is typically just affiliated with seizures and not the mental symptoms that come along with it.
Van Gogh’s poor psyche resulted in him engaging in many self-destructive behaviors — some of them ironically worsening his mental situation. He drank excessively, which resulted in severe stomach problems, and would self-harm — a famous incident of this occurring when he cut off his ear following a turbulent argument with Paul Gaugain (a fellow artist that Van Gogh worked for). This violent decision resulted in Van Gogh making several famous self-portraits that depicted the bandages around his ear.
Following the self-harming incident, Van Gogh entered the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum on May 8, 1889. Van Gogh would produce many paintings at the asylum, some of them being his most famous – such as The Starry Night. Though his period at the asylum resulted in the creation of some of his finest works, it should still be reiterated that Van Gogh’s poor mental health was not a catalyst for creativity but instead a dampener, which he referred to in frustration. Between February and April of 1890, Van Gogh went through a severe episode of depression that left him able to draw and paint very little.
“I am so angry with myself because I cannot do what I should like to do, and at such a moment one feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep dark well, utterly helpless.”
Van Gogh struggled throughout his life with mental illness, often expressing resentment toward those feelings. However, while reflecting on this life, he placed value on being honest about his experiences, as he believed that honesty was vital to making great art. It was not the romanticization of mental illness, but rather artistic truth, that made his work so impactful.
“Do you know that it is very, very necessary for honest people to remain in art? Hardly anyone knows that the secret of beautiful work lies to a great extent in truth and sincere sentiment.”
Van Gogh Museum, Why Did Vincent van Gogh Cut off His Ear?
Wikipedia, Vincent van Gogh
Spark Notes, Vincent Van Gogh – Biography
Van Gogh Gallery, Vincent Van Gogh’s Biography: Mental Health
NCBI, Creativity and chronic disease: Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)