Why van Gogh is the Poster Child of Tortured Artists Everywhere
In a list of the top ten tortured artists of all time, Vincent van Gogh claims the #1 spot.
Members of a club of tortured artists sport Vincent van Gogh’s self-portrait with bandaged ear as their club badge.
What makes Vincent van Gogh the poster child of tortured artists everywhere? Do recent discoveries challenge this particular claim to fame? Let’s find out.
Recognizing a Tortured Artist
Wikipedia offers one of the better descriptions of a tortured artist. Identifying characteristics include:
- in constant torment; overwhelmed by own emotions and inner conflict
- feels alienated and misunderstood
- self-destructive behaviour, often violent–i.e., self-mutilation, suicide
- mental health issues
Concept of the Tortured Artist Predates van Gogh
Plato (428-348 BCE) was the first to suggest that tortured artists were something special. Speaking of poets, he wrote that madness was “a gift of heaven” while “sober sense is merely human.”
The Romantic era (approximately 1800-1850) was a time when artists of all stripes believed that their art needed to be a free expression of their emotions. Art was subjective, personal, and often mystical. Profound truths came from madness. Insane artists were geniuses and heroes because they skated to the far edges of emotional response and then kept on going.
Happy Birthday, Vincent
Vincent van Gogh was born on March 30th, 1853, just as the intensity of the Romantic era was starting to wane. He was the third Vincent, named after both a grandfather and a brother who had died at birth a year earlier.
Van Gogh was born in Groot-Zundert, Holland to upper middle class parents. Vincent’s father was a pastor in a Dutch Reformed church.
Poster Child of Tortured Artists
Vincent had five siblings–two brothers and three sisters. He was close to only one of them, his brother Theo. In fact, Theo supported Vincent financially after Vincent tried and failed at many different careers–teacher, bookstore clerk, art dealer, and missionary.
Romantic interests were as unsuccessful as family ties. Vincent was in love with a widowed cousin who wasn’t interested in him. Ditto for an upper class woman named Eugenia. After leaving the family home, Vincent’s romantic interests were confined to prostitutes. One prostitute, Sien, was Vincent’s favourite, but after her repeated attempts to drive a wedge between Vincent and Theo, Vincent left her.
Van Gogh was friends with another artist, Paul Gauguin, for a period of time. That friendship ended in a violent fight.
Mental Health Issues
Many psychiatrists have attempted to forensically diagnose Vincent van Gogh’s mental health issues. The list of possibilities includes:
- porphyria –a rare hereditary disease where blood hemoglobin is improperly metabolized; results in mental disturbances
- bipolar disorder
- temporal lobe epilepsy
- Geschwind syndrome–behaviours such as hyposexuality and deepened emotional responses; associated with temporal lobe epilepsy
Vincent’s sister, Elisabeth, described him as a child. She said that he was “intensely serious and uncommunicative, and walked around clumsily and in a daze, with his head hung low.”
Biographer Charles Moffat claimed that Vincent had “an inability to read the intent and emotions of others.”
Self-Destructive – The Self-Mutilation Story
There are two stories, repeatedly told, of Vincent’s self-destructive behaviour. Both may be wrong.
Van Gogh definitely didn’t cut off his entire ear, just a little bit of his earlobe. The story is that he tried to attack his friend, Paul Gauguin, with a razor and then, feeling remorseful, turned the razor on himself. However, German historians claim that Gauguin enjoyed fencing; that Gauguin lopped off the piece of van Gogh’s ear while fencing, and that the two painters made up the self-mutilation story so that Gauguin wouldn’t be charged by police.
Self-Destructive – The Suicide Story
It is widely believed that Vincent van Gogh died at age 37 as the result of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The story is that he was painting in a wheat field in Auvers, France. He shot himself in the chest, walked the mile back to the inn where he was staying, and died two days later because there was no surgeon available to help him. His final words, uttered to his brother Theo, were “La tristesse durera toujours” meaning “the sadness will last forever.”
However, in a persuasive and fascinating article for Vanity Fair, two of Vincent’s biographers argue for murder. Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith offer compelling evidence of a crime: a teenage boy who owned a gun and who liked to torment van Gogh; no painting supplies or guns found in the wheat field, and no gunshot residue on Vincent’s hand. These are just some of the facts that suggest murder rather than suicide.
A curator at the Van Gogh Museum offered an interesting prediction when told of the murder theory. He wrote, “[T]he biggest problem you’ll find after publishing your theory is that the suicide is more or less printed in the brains of past and present generations and has become a sort of self-evident truth. Vincent’s suicide has become the grand finale of the story of the martyr for art, it’s his crown of thorns.”
Tormented and Overwhelmed
A few months after the mutilated ear incident, Van Gogh voluntarily committed himself to the insane asylum . It was during this time that van Gogh painted some of his most famous pieces, including The Starry Night. Starry Night is considered by many to be van Gogh’s pinnacle achievement because the swirling night sky took painting beyond a direct representation of the physical world.
Unfortunately, Vincent could take no solace in the art that many consider to be his masterpiece. He claimed that The Starry Night, Irises, and other paintings of that time meant absolutely nothing to him.
In fact, because the preference at the time was for realistic or classical paintings, van Gogh was to see the sale of only one painting in his lifetime. “The Red Vineyard” sold for 400 francs, seven months before van Gogh’s death. That is in startling contrast to our enthusiasm for van Gogh’s work today. His “Portrait of Dr. Gachet” sold in 1990 for 148.6 million dollars.
Prolific and Brilliant
The Wikipedia article doesn’t mention it, but we only tend to revere tortured artists who produce great art and, ideally, lots of it. In that characteristic, as in all others, Vincent van Gogh excelled. In the ten years that Vincent worked on his art, he made 900 paintings and 1100 sketches or pencil drawings. This productivity surpassed that of major artists of the day who had assistants.
I am now at the beginning of the beginning of doing something serious.Vincent van Gogh, age 28
In one particularly fertile year, van Gogh produced 200 paintings and 200 drawings and watercolours. If we do the math, that is a new piece of work every 36 hours. And, says Harvard Magazine, “Each one ranks among the masterpieces of Western art.”
In addition to his art, van Gogh wrote more than 1700 pages of correspondence in his lifetime, most as letters to Theo. The compulsion to write is called hypergraphia. It is considered a mental illness and is probably associated with temporal lobe epilepsy.
In Vincent’s case, however, his hypergraphia served him well. Theo died six months after Vincent. Theo’s wife made it her mission to gather together Vincent’s paintings and letters and try to get him recognition for his work. It took eleven years for her to achieve her goal.
Do Great Artists Have to Suffer?
Some research does indicate a link between creative people and mental illnesses, particularly schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. However, studies are inconclusive and the links tend to be strongest for writers, especially poets.
As one researcher points out, “It’s a great story: the tortured artist. And it obviously has bearings in reality, but it’s one that is easy to embrace a little too much.” If an artist starts to believe that great art is produced only by the mentally unstable, that artist’s work will suffer.
The last word goes to Van Gogh who echoes the researchers in one of his letters to Theo. He wrote,
“I think the success or failure of a drawing also depends greatly on the mood and the condition of the painter. Therefore I do what I can to keep cheerful and clear-headed. But sometimes, like now, a heavy depression comes over me, and then it’s hell.”
What do you think? Did van Gogh’s art emerge because of his mental illnesses or in spite of them? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.