January 22, 2017

Vincent Van Gogh: Tortured Talent and Suspected Sufferer

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Old Man in Sorrow by Van Gogh

Scientists have for speculated that genius may be linked with madness. The link was strongest among those who studied music or literature, the two disciplines in which genius and madness are most often linked in history.

Vincent Van Gogh, a Dutch post-Impressionist painter known for his vivid-colored and rendered artworks, was a brilliant artist in the late 1800s with as many as 873 paintings and 1049 drawings credited to his brief career, celebrated for his unique content and use of color. Sometimes bright, sometimes blue is the world of legendary artist Vincent Van Gogh. His feverish production of art is said to have come with sustained enthusiasm and manic episodes, followed by exhaustion and depression.

Throughout his life, Van Gogh had had an eccentric personality and unstable moods, suffering from psychotic episodes during the last 2 years of his extraordinary life. Many physicians have ventured a perplexing variety of diagnoses of his illness and various biographies describe him as suffering with epilepsy, depression, psychotic attacks, delusions and bipolar disorder.

Due to Van Gogh‘s extreme enthusiasm and dedication to first religion and then art coupled with the feverish pace of his art production many believe that mania was a prominent condition in Van Gogh’s life.

One hundred and eighty-nine paintings he executed in one incredibly manic twelve-month run: haystacks, harvests, cafes, portraits, self-portraits – all these works he poured his soul – and ultimately his sanity – into, which only stood in mockery to his extraordinary gift, without a single buyer to be had.

Think: If you were possessed of the talent of Vincent Van Gogh and no one on this planet recognized it, wouldn’t you, too, go mad?

In December 1888, he experienced a psychotic episode in which he threatened the life of Gauguin, his fellow artist and a personal friend, and cut off a piece of his own left ear before offering it as a gift to a prostitute.

However, these episodes were always followed by exhaustion and depression and ultimately suicide. Therefore, a diagnosis of bipolar disorder or manic depression makes sense with the accounts of these episodes in Van Gogh‘s life.

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The self-portrait of Vincent Van Gogh is haunting – the sharp nose and sunken cheeks, the desperate eyes peering from hollowed sockets. Face and beard are slashed by violent almost bloody diagonal strokes that clash with the blues elsewhere on the canvas. We have seen the image a thousand times and we know it as the portrait of genius and madness.

It was mania that throttled his creative engine and depression that extinguished it. Some have speculated that genius is fired by madness. Sure, it is most likely that the manic episode phase of his illness provided the power surge he needed to complete an incredible 400 or so paintings in the last three years of his life. But that same madness also brought his work to a complete stop, first temporarily, then permanently, eventually committing suicide at the age of 37.

Thankfully, you don’t have to be bipolar to be a genius – but it might help.

The stereotype of the tortured artist shows up often in popular culture, not just in history. Along with that stereotype comes an assumption, that the hyper highs and crushing lows that we witness in some of our celebrities is a sign of bipolar disorder. Please open up below about your struggles with bipolar disorder and reveal how you cope, artistically or not, with the inevitable highs and lows of this challenging condition.



  1. Cathy Read says:

    I am a Fine Artist artist, Photographer, and Craftsman, who also dables in Music and invention. At first I felt outcast because of my creativity and inventiveness, since I use these to cope with my life. Others move through life it seems at times so easily.I have found relief from mania and depression in artistic expression, currently handpainting ceramic tiles. This makes things easier for me.
    Through my art I associate with others who appreciate art in it’s many forms. I enjoy painting animals and natural motifs, particularly tees , often thru commision. The chemistry of ceramics and the craft involved in ceramic art, give my life meaning. Every day I am learning new techniques with color and dipictions of life.
    I am a retired photographer and keep a journal and sketechbook of my ideas, allowing me to captue the mood swings I have and visit them later with objectivity. I then explore creatively with discipline, the thought processes I have had. This brings meaning and purpose to my life. I draw using my photography and sometimes live models, creating a social net work.
    As a very very shy,.laden with bi-polar, patient, I often feel ostrasized. I am epileptic. The bi-polar everyday stresses of life give me seizures. With my neurolical and now highly diebetic life,
    I keep up mostly with creatively talented friends who support me and enrich my life. With the greatly appreciated company of my two cats and good specialists, I keep stablilized.
    Although I’m always learning to be social, I don’t participate in general socializing activities much. I work alot with the creativty God has given me in my own and an open Studio. So I try, with difficulty sometimes, expressing myself to others.
    I am beginning, with the help of God and Gentle Yoga , to get a grasp of the physical universe and always re-accuring social chalenges/ pressures of my life. With my neurolical and now highly diebetic life, it seems I lead a stressfull rigorous schedule of doctors. I find art and creative expression relaxing and gratifying .
    I have, within the past year, learned a clean lifestyle and enjoy aspects of my personality unfettered by many tranquilizers and neurological/ psychological drugs. The ability to live this lifestyle was hard won and I find myself gratefull to all who have supported me through this journey.
    Thank-you for providing me and others this space to express ourselves.
    If you are so inclined and care to can see my work, you can find it at the website: fineartbycathy.com


  1. […] Art is a natural mood stabilizer. It has the added advantage of being, generally, side-effect free. The mind, body and mood need to stabilize, calm down and quiet down. We need to run off the constant stimulation that we often get from the media and media violence. Enhancing your creativity can minimize the destructive energies of mood swings associated with bipolar disorder. Develop creativity and strengthen the mind HERE. […]

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