Vincent Van Gogh: Linking Mental Disorders to Creation

Certain forms of mental illness have long been linked to creativity, to the perception of color and shape, and to the outlook one has on the contemporary world. Individuals suffering from mental illness often display a conception of the world in a original way, literally seeing what others cannot. Mental illness is clearly not necessary for creativity or success – and certainly has serious negative consequences for the sufferer’s daily existence – but so many highly acclaimed creative artists have excelled in their field despite their illness, that it has spawned a familiar cliche’. The cliche’ of the ‘tortured artist’ has in turn brought a common presumption that creatively gifted people are more likely to suffer from mental illness than others.

This idea of a substantial connection between artistic genius and madness has intrigued academics, who have sought to investigate a link between creativity and mental illness. Vincent Van Gogh appears to be a prototypical example of this link. The mental state of Vincent Van Gogh contributed to his creative genius, to his success, and ultimately to his downfall as an artist.

Understanding the early life of Vincent Van Gogh contributes to the explanation of his tragic downfall. Van Gogh’s father, Theodorus Van Gogh, a minister, and his mother, Anna Van Gogh-Carbentus, were living in poverty as they raised Van Gogh and his six siblings. The financial struggles his family faced forced Van Gogh to leave school and find work instead in order to help support the family. At the young age of sixteen, Van Gogh acquired a position as the youngest employee of the Grouple & Cie art dealership. His Uncle Cent had been a partner in the firm and, after putting in a good word for his nephew, he introduced Van Gogh to the art world.

Through his employment he was able to become “intimately acquainted with the art trade.” The time Van Gogh spent surrounded by numerous pieces of art fed into his impressive knowledge of it. From a young age Van Gogh had a strong connection to painting, but his legendary artistic ability wasn’t immediately apparent. Instead, whatever artistic talent Van Gogh might have displayed in his early years was overshadowed by the unusual personal habits that troubled his peers. People were often afraid of him, “because of his wild and unkempt appearance and his intense manner of speaking.” The perceptions people had of him deeply wounded Van Gogh, and contributed to make early life a difficult challenge for him. He went on to move to London at the age of 20, where he continued working for a branch dealership of Grouple & Cie, only to neglect his work due to a surprising and abruptly renewed devotion to religion. Van Gogh’s family became deeply disappointed with him for this neglect, knowing that religion would never be his passion.

In a letter written to Van Gogh’s brother, Theo, his father bitterly writes, “How much he has spurned!” even though this new devotion was likely motivated by a desire to be like his father. Van Gogh’s interest in religion soon turned into an unhealthy and obsessive devotion. Van Gogh volunteered as a preacher in a poor Belgian town where he wholeheartedly dedicated himself to helping the poor. He came to understand, from intimate personal experience, the hardships of their poverty. Van Gogh decided to abandon all of his worldly positions, sleeping on the streets with the poor and investing every moment in their company.

Ultimately, church authorities became displeased with his, “exaggerated display of humility” and terminated his position. Van Gogh struggled deeply with an internal conflict of self worth, feeling himself inconsequential and unworthy. He left for France feeling nothing but a failure, tragically unaware that he was destined to become one of the most renowned and famous artists in world history.

In France, Van Gogh lived in the home of his closest brother Theo, who supported him financially. There, Van Gogh began painting aside fellow artist and companion Paul Gauguin. Due to his unstable behavior, Van Gogh soon became a burdensome associate. The letters exchanged between the brothers and family reveal the most direct accounts of Van Gogh’s hysteria. In a letter written to his sister, Theo wrote, “It seems as if he were two persons: one, marvelously gifted, tender and refined, the other, egotistic and hard hearted…it is a pity that he is his own enemy, for he makes life hard not only for others but also for himself.

One night while having an argument with Gauguin, Van Gogh threatened his friend with a blade, turned it on himself and cut off his left ear. This horrific incident most likely occurred at the height of one of Van Gogh’s recurrent episodes of manic-depression. Stranger on Earth describes such impulsive outbreaks as “odd decisions on the spur of the moment, sometimes with disastrous consequences.” After the fact, Van Gogh allegedly gifted his severed ear to a prostitute. Soon after this traumatic event Van Gogh was brought to a hospital and upon returning, painted a now famous self-portrait titled, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear. This portrait depicts himself tended by a bandaged wrapped around his head protecting his cut ear.

The famous incident was preceded by a plague of tortuous mental disturbance.Van Gogh’s bouts of mental illness became so severe that neighbors no longer felt safe around him. Confronting the reality of his situation, Van Gogh decided he had no choice but to admit himself into the Saint-Paul Asylum. Van Gogh wrote in his journal at the time, “If I didn’t restrain my indignation I would immediately be judged to be a dangerous madman.” Van Gogh continued to paint during his time in the asylum, since he believed painting was his only chance at regaining his sanity.

The letters written to Theo during his time at Saint-Remy reveal that although Van Gogh felt isolated and still suffered from a series of attacks, he felt safer knowing that he was no longer a threat to himself or to others. Van Gogh accordingly said he found his work was best at Saint-Paul, his tormented mind allowed him to produce paintings expressing his ingenious outlook on the world from the safety of an environment without which it might not have been possible. The works he painted during this time stand out as truly unique.

Unfortunately, Van Gogh’s mental illness was persistent, and likely lead him to take little care of himself physically. According to ‘Vincent Van Gogh’s Illness’ by Jamison Kay Redfield, and Richard Jed Wyatt, Van Gogh drank heavily and smoked, isolated himself, and often drove himself to near self-starvation. Van Gogh’s use of absinthe, a highly alcoholic beverage often associated with negative long term effects and social disorders, may have played a role in his unusual perception of light and brilliant color, as reflected in some of his most famous masterpieces.

The evolution of the mental suffering Van Gogh faced can be followed by analyzing his art over the course of his life. His paintings display deep insight on his authentic mind. Van Gogh produced some of his most famous paintings while in mental asylums. Nature features prominently in the series of paintings Van Gogh produced while he was a patient in the Saint-Paul Asylum. Van Gogh summarized his reason for this in a letter he wrote to his brother Theo from Saint-Paul. Van Gogh wrote, “They say—and I am very willing to believe it—that it is difficult to know yourself—but it isn’t easy to paint yourself either”. Van Gogh thus instead painted the landscapes seen through his cell window, while ignoring the confining bars separating him from the outside world, because of the disconnected void he felt within himself.

As a result he produced landscape paintings that acquired the dramatic emotion that would otherwise show expression in self-portraits. Another recurring pattern in the art of Van Gogh from this time is the use of vibrant yellow. Van Gogh used so much yellow that many people believe it was influenced by a mental condition, rather than as a deliberate stylistic taste. Van Gogh was prescribed digitalis, a medicine used to treat certain heart conditions, in hopes of preventing his epileptic seizures. People receiving excessive amounts of this drug can begin to see everything with a yellow hue, or halo.

Although rare, patients taking digitalis also can develop unequal pupil size, due to the drugs targeting of certain enzymes found in the eye. The halos seen and described by patients suffering from this digitalis side effect look much like the ones present in Van Gogh’s, The Starry Night. This painting was one among many produced by Van Gogh from inside his asylum cell – but the only one created from pure memory.

This singular work is among the most powerful emotional expressions ever conveyed with paint and canvas, and is perhaps his most appealing to the public for that reason. This shocking glimpse into Van Gogh’s mind, painted with reference only to his tortured private thoughts, is a true masterpiece that almost certainly would have been impossible in the absence of his mental illness.