Was Vincent Van Gogh bipolar?
Recently, I re-watched the Doctor Who episode “Vincent and the Doctor.” This time around, I was struck by the character of Vincent Van Gogh’s depression and suffering. The portrayal resonated with me, and I began reading up on Van Gogh’s life and struggles. While I knew the generalities of Van Gogh’s history, I had never delved too deeply into his emotional and mental hardships.
Today, Vincent Van Gogh is seen as one of the greatest artists of all time, but during his life, his often erratic behavior caused many to think him mad, for lack of a better term. Given what we know today, it is likely he had some type of mental illness. But what type of mental illness did Van Gogh actually have?
Van Gogh was no doubt an incredible talent, but his mental issues often caused him a great deal of strife. There have been many different theories surrounding Van Gogh’s mental health. According to the book, Neurological Disorders in Famous Artists, previous diagnoses for Van Gogh’s condition have not been based on medical evidence, but instead on his life and works. Neurologist Antonio Carota (2005) claims Van Gogh had “bipolar disorder, affective or schizoaffective.”
Van Gogh’s case for bipolar disorder is quite strong, given his extremes highs, which included prolific creativity, erratic and impulsive behavior, and equally extreme lows, which included severe depression, outbursts, and psychotic episodes. During one of his better-known episodes, he cut off part of his ear (Carota, 2005).
His lifestyle of drugs and drinking may have exacerbated his condition, and it may also have caused him to experience seizures as well as paranoid delusions (Rosenhek, 2008).
Van Gogh’s art displays the extreme emotions he felt. His use of color represents those emotions with great effect. Much of his artwork is full of bright colors, especially yellow, and shows the beauty of nature, such as Sunflowers and the famous Starry Night, which showed the beauty of light against the darkness. But he also used browns and darker tones to show decay or death, like in the ominous Wheatfield with Crows.
While it is impossible to truly diagnose Van Gogh’s illness, his mental health seemed to be what caused his tragic end. Despite his troubled life, Vincent Van Gogh was an incredible artist who used both his extreme suffering and ecstasy to create some of the greatest art the world has ever known.
Fast facts on the life of Van Gogh
Vincent Van Gogh was born on March 30, 1863 in Zundert, Netherlands.His father was a pastor, and early on in his life, he wanted to be one as well. Van Gogh’s uncle was an art dealer who encouraged him to paint.He lived most of his life in poverty and depended on the kindness of others, especially his younger brother Theo with whom he had a very close bond.
He began his art career at the age of 27, and had produced over 900 works by the time of his death.Van Gogh spent time across Europe and was fond of drinking and doing drugs. Many people found him unsettling. He was prone to violent outbursts and once threatened a friend with a knife. He cut off part of his earlobe and sent it to a prostitute.
While he was alive, he only ever sold one painting; The Red Vineyard. While he was quite well traveled, his residence throughout France is most notable and where he produced some of his greatest and most famous works of art.Arguably, his most famous work, The Starry Night was created when he was staying at the asylum St. Remy’s after two psychotic episodes.
When he left St. Remy’s, he was allegedly “cured.” After that, he moved to Aurves-sur-Ois. A few months later he committed suicide. He shot himself in the chest and later died from the wound, his brother Theo by his side. Theo died within a year of his brother. The book, Letters to Theo, catalogued the correspondence he had with his younger brother over the years.
- Fast, .J (2012). Retrieved from bphope.com/blog/did-vincent-van-gogh-have-bipolar-disorder/
- Blumer, D. (2002). Retrieved from http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/pdf/10.1176/appi.ajp.159.4.519
- Rosenhek, J. (2008). Retrieved from http://www.doctorsreview.com/history/artfully-insane/
- “Van Gogh’s Mental and Physical Health” (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.vangoghgallery.com/misc/mental.htm
- Carota, A. (2014). Retrieved from http://www.neuro-la-cote.info/cognition-and-behavior/had-vincent-van-gogh-a-bipolar-disorder/
- Probst, C. (Top 10 Facts About Vincent Van Gogh). Retrieved from http://blog.degreed.com/top-10-facts-about-vincent-van-gogh/