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.Van Gogh sunflowers in vase

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 Irises painting

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

Alienated

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 painting gathering wheat

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:

  • schizophrenia
  • porphyria –a rare hereditary disease where blood hemoglobin is improperly metabolized; results in mental disturbances
  • syphilis
  • bipolar disorder
  • temporal lobe epilepsy
  • Geschwind syndrome–behaviours such as hyposexuality and deepened emotional responses; associated with temporal lobe epilepsy
  • autism

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.”Van Gogh painting of ship on sea

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.”Van Gogh painting Starry Night

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. 

 

 

 

 

 

13 comments

  1. What a great post, Karen, again! I am extremely interested in art as you know but you have uncovered some things about Van Gogh that I never knew. What a sad life he lived! Bravo for Theo’s wife for getting him the recognition he so richly deserved, it is just sad that he did not live long enough to claim it for himself.

    As for his art…I think his art emerged in spite of his mental illnesses. His quote you ended your post with gives me the idea that despite his depression and the lonely life he lived he tried to paint things that would help him keep clear headed and cheerful. In a way, that focus is what lead to him producing such great works of art.

    I have great respect for his artwork. He used such rich colors, vibrant scenes and produced paintings that could draw you in, at least they do that for me. I would have relished the chance to sit and talk with him (if I spoke Dutch that is). 🙂

    1. HI Susan,
      I was reading that the rich colours we see in Van Gogh’s paintings are nowhere near as rich as they would have been when he painted them. The chrome yellow, in particular, was unstable and degraded over time so that the yellow we see in his paintings is much muddier and browner than when he painted it.

      He would have been so interesting to talk with. His letters to his brother show him to be a thoughtful, reflective artist. And talk about prolific! I admire that tremendously.

      1. That would be really amazing to see the actual colors when he freshly painted his masterpieces! It does stand to reason that the paints degraded over time as the paint quality has advanced so much over the years to be more stable. I admire the volume of pieces he did as well…it must have been a tremendous release from his demons to focus on making beautiful artwork.

  2. Great post Karen, I learned more from you in spite of the fact that much had been written about him before. I find it amazing that such a tortured man was able to produce such incredible and beautiful paintings. Undoubtedly he lived during a time when little was really known about mental illness and can only wonder how many more Van Goghs might be out there today dealing with mental illness, depression and misery while creating wonderful art.

  3. So interesting! Van Gogh’s art is so amazingly beautiful and captivating. I know some think his unique paintings were created because of his mental illness, and some think it was despite of it. I don’t know, but his genius is apparent in every brush stroke. I am sorry that he never know how truly gifted he was.

  4. I enjoyed this post immensely. I appreciated the depth of research that you uncovered and presented. I learned lots! As for your question at the end….”What do you think? Did van Gogh’s art emerge because of his mental illnesses or in spite of them?”, it is not something I can answer immediately but would need time to come to some sort of a conclusion. However, last night I attended a Poetry Slam at my school put on by grade 10 students who came out one by one to deliver a poem they had written. One student came out and immediately grabbed the audience’s attention with his opening line….How can I write a poem when I do not have any life experiences? When everything has been done for me by my parents? Or my teachers? All in all it was a pretty great and perceptive poem based on what life experiences this kid has had so far.

    PS I am kind of learning toward the viewpoint that the great art of Vincent exists because he was trying to make sense of his world. I think that if he didn’t have those life experiences we would not have those pieces of art and literature to enjoy. I am not sure it would matter to him knowing how the world values his work now. I think he achieved what he needed to achieve by working through his demons.

    1. Hi Fran,
      That grade 10 student you referenced isn’t the only one with an interesting perspective. Your comments are so refreshingly unique. It had never even once occurred to me that Vincent van Gogh might not have cared what the world thought of his work. I’d been looking only through the lens of my own take on the world, knowing that I would have cared very much.

      I just looked up some van Gogh quotes. This one is apropos to your point – “I try more and more to be myself, caring relatively little whether people approve or disapprove.”

  5. Great article, Karen!

    I love the work of Van Gogh, and have always counted him among my favourite artists. His work has served as an inspiration to me, and I find it terribly sad that his brilliance was not appreciated during his lifetime.

    However, I do find the myth of the tortured artist frustrating. Mental illness is very common across society, and impacts people of all walks of life, not just artists. For example, here is a quote from the website of the Center for Addiction and Mental Health about prevalence and incidence:

    “Prevalence:
    In any given year, 1 in 5 Canadians experiences a mental health or addiction problem. By the time Canadians reach 40 years of age, 1 in 2 have – or have had – a mental illness.”

    So, although Van Gogh certainly did struggle with mental health issues, I do not think that one can draw the conclusion that there is a link between artistic inclinations and mental illness. I worry that this misconception might influence some young people to avoid developing their artistic potential.

    Finally, I wonder how much Van Gogh’s psychological state was exacerbated by poverty, isolation, and lack of positive social support for his artistic endeavours. I think that it is incredible that he persisted with his art despite all of these barriers, and the world is a better place because of it.

    Jude

    1. Hi Jude,
      Thanks for you very thoughtful response. I agree with you. As I mentioned in the article, studies indicating any linking between artistic inclination and mental illness are inconclusive at best. And certainly mental health issues extend far beyond those with an artistic bent. From what I’ve read, the biggest problem with the myth of the tortured artist is when it is adopted by young people with mental health issues who use it as a shield to avoid getting treatment.
      Like you, I’m incredibly impressed that van Gogh persisted with his art. I’ve just today ordered the book Van Gogh: The Life through interlibrary loan. I’m interested in learning more about his creative genius.

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