Van Gogh Connections between Creativity and Mental Illness

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Vincent William Van Gogh was a Dutch artist whose art is heavily associated with the Post-Impressionism movement, which then became more commonly known as Expressionism. Van Gogh oftentimes exhibited unstable moods during his early childhood and didn’t show any earlier inclination towards art-making at the time. It wasn’t until later on, after he had apprenticed as an art dealer, become depressed, and turned to God for answers did he truly begin to show interest in the arts for himself. Some of his most famous pieces include Starry Night, Cafe Terrace at Night, Sunflowers, Irises, and several other self-portraits. He produced most of his best-known work throughout the duration of his last two years of his life. Van Gogh’s paintings not only expressed his mental struggles, but also gave him the ability to fight off the hopelessness and despair that would eventually cause him to take his own life.

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Van Gogh often time used his art to express himself, especially when his emotional state was affecting him. He typically suffered from two distinctive moments from a reactive depression, including some potentially bipolar moments as well. And both of these moments of depression were followed by maintained periods of enthusiasm and high energy. One can see that most–if not all–of Van Gogh’s unrivaled work was continuously defined by his powerful, exhilarating, and emotionful style. Everything down to his choice of spectacular colors, primitive brush strokes, dysmorphic shapes and suggestive contours all express his neurotic mind, and all the anguish and despair he was feeling at the time. Van Gogh also had a particular fascination with human suffering, and how it turned out to be a melancholic and somber study of art. The Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud “viewed art as a privileged form of neurosis where the analyst-critic explores the artwork in order to understand and unearth the vicissitudes of the creator’s psychological motivations.” For this reason, it is believed that several of these psychodynamic factors may have indeed contributed to the creation of his pieces.

Van Gogh was said to have suffered a majority of his life with many mental, emotional, and psychical struggles. Some of these psychodynamic factors go from Porphyria and Epilepsy to Schizophrenia and Bipolar Depression. There is some evidence that many of the symptoms he was showcasing are from a rare hereditary disease called Porphyria. He probably also suffered from seizures, and ultimately, triggered his own manic mood swings by his heavy intake of absinthe, brandy, nicotine, turpentine, and the dosage of ‘foxglove’ as a remedy. The medicine, taken “in concert with lead poisoning from the oil paints, along with his consumption of absinthe?” James Ottar Grundvig wrote, “put Van Gogh on an accelerated destructive path that would lead to death.” (Breaking Van Gogh, 2016).

One of his most well-known psychotic breaks is shown in his piece Self-Portrait With a Bandaged Ear, 1889. Self-Portrait With a Bandaged Ear is a depiction of Van Gogh himself, after he cut off his own ear after an argument he had with another artist, Paul Gauguin. In this painting, one could really get a sense of an unbearable and pitiful presence. As mentioned earlier, one can see every mark that was made on that canvas. Van Gogh shows off the bandage on his mutilated ear, with his head turned to give a good view. There is a sense of raw shame, contrasted with his somber acceptance of what he had done to himself. It occurred when he went off to self-mutilate, by cutting the lower portion of his left ear, and proceeding to gift it to a prostitute. He believed that painting himself after this occurrence would bring upon balance into his life. This thought process only further demonstrates how important the role of artistic creation was to him. Even most of his self-portraits. A lot of them are painted strictly in a mirrored view, which could easily be him showcasing his constant self-exploration and self-identity. If he feels as though he doesn’t truly know who he is, then how can he proceed to depict an accurate image of himself?

In his painting Van Gogh’s Chair, 1888, this depiction of steady and rustic seating actually serves as a symbolic portrait. This is how Van Gogh wished he saw himself–useful and modest, like someone reliable. He always told his friends he claimed that smoking a pipe aided him against madness. And so, on the straw seat, he brings attention to the fact that he has left his pipe and tobacco. It is also interesting to note that nearing the final few years of his life, a majority of his paintings depicted by halo-like objects and a strong usage of the color yellow. Some critics have described these as “aberrations to innumerable causes, including chronic solar injury, glaucoma, and cataracts” (Lee, 1981).

At the time, Van Gogh’s pieces were considered ugly, and hasty. He even wrote his family that fame frightened him to his core–it was easier to fail and be free of society’s expectations than to worry about constantly pleasing an audience that enjoys his work he has put out. After Van Gogh’s death, his brother Theo just wanted a higher profile for his brother’s work. After Theo passing shortly after, Theo’s wife Jo Van Gogh-Bonger, began her work on gaining exposure for Van Gogh’s pieces. She ended up loaning some out for exhibitions, selling some, and publishing all the letters that were shared between Vincent and Theo Van Gogh. While she was promoting his pieces, Impressionism and Post-Impressionism were becoming more and more accepted throughout the art world, only further solidifying that Van Gogh’s work would be appreciated by others. From then on, his interesting–yet still tragic life story is what enraptured the people, and took the world by storm.

Vincent Van Gogh ended up committing suicide in 1890. Even though he was in a constant battle with his mental illness, he created some of his strongest pieces up until his tragic death. In spite of the fact that he lived a short life full of emotional battles and struggles with self-identity, the remarkable collection of work he left behind–which is well over a few hundred paintings–will always be celebrated for years to come.

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Van Gogh Connections Between Creativity and Mental Illness. (2019, Dec 24). Retrieved January 29, 2023 , from

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