One of the most famous and influential artists of all time, Vincent Van Gogh is known by some as the artist who cut off his own ear, by some as the creator of the magical starry night and by the entire world as one of the most important figures in Post-Impressionist Art, a title he earned posthumously. Vincent struggled in obscurity during his life. Paralyzing anxiety and depression sent him spiraling in turmoil and eventually claimed his life at 37 years of age. There are so many questions and misconceptions around the young artist’s life. Many books, movies, and theories attempt to explain Vincent’s artistic ability and the trauma he went through to somehow draw a connection.
The simple young artist’s not so simple battle
In 1888, Vincent was living with an artist Paul Gaugin and after an argument he cut off his own ear! After he was treated by a doctor, his brother Theo who was his greatest support both financially and emotionally was called. Vincent recovered to some extent in few days, but could recall only a little of what happened. He earnestly tried to assure his brother that what he had done was merely ‘a simple artist’s bout of craziness’.
But was it really? He suffered more episodes a month later and had to come to terms with the fact that he indeed was living with a mental illness. Living in a time when limited knowledge and treatment around mental illness was available, he at first called it ‘mental or nervous fever or madness’. His real battle with mental health is revealed in the many letters he wrote to his brother Theo:
I am so angry with myself because I cannot do what I should like to do, and at such a moment one feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep dark well, utterly helpless.Vincent to Theo
With only narrations from a few eye witnesses during his lifetime, and these letters, it is hard to pin point what truly triggered Vincent’s mental illness, or even explain exactly what illness he had. However, it goes without saying that the brilliant and passionate artist went through many ordeals in his life.
Vincent had decided to become an artist at the age of 27. His ideas differed from a lot of people, and he struggled to fit in. He then abandoned his unsuccessful careers as an art dealer and a missionary to concentrate on his painting and drawing. He wanted to learn from older and more experienced artists like Gaugin. They had many disagreements living together and the relationship became strained after a while. His heavy drinking and his generally nervous nature added to the agitation.
Vincent’s mental illness- his source of creativity?
People often associated and still associate Vincent’s remarkable talent with his mental illness and call him ‘The tortured genius’. During the time Vincent admitted himself to the asylum, the idea of creativity being linked to madness was well known but he rejected it. He eventually came to think of madness as an illness like any other. Treatment was limited- the bromide and therapy baths didn’t help him much. He insisted on continuing to paint whenever he could.
Work distracts me infinitely better than anything else and if I could once really throw myself into it with all my energy, that might possibly be the best remedy.Vincent to Theo
He often survived on coffee, bread and absinthe, painting on tea towels when he was short of canvas and couldn’t afford it. All of these went on to become originals in our day! His tremendous oeuvre of landscapes, still-life paintings, portraits and sketches with their vibrant colours and subjective perspective would revolutionize how the world viewed art. The long walks that he used to take with his family as a boy instilled in him the love for nature and he spent hours outdoors with his easel and canvas, capturing simple moments. His earlier paintings were darker and duller and often represented the hardships of the peasant life and coal miners. During his younger days he even lived amongst them to feel what they went through. In his very famous piece ‘The Potato Eaters’ he deliberately chose peasant models to bring to attention their manual labour. He also used himself as a subject when he was too poor to pay his subjects. When he moved to Paris, he developed his unique brush strokes, used more colour and painted boulevards, cafés and more:
In his lifetime Vincent painted over 900 paintings in less than 10 years and the only time he ever painted during a bout of mental illness was in the early spring of 1890. All of his artistic achievements were a result of hard work and not a side effect of illness. To say that Vincent was a mad genius reduces him to only his mental health. It is of course right to say that he didn’t allow his mental illness to stop him. If anything, Vincent’s story is proof that mental health does not define who we are. His evergreen paintings now are reproduced so often and are loved worldwide. His life was as turbulent as the swirling brush strokes in his art, and his breakdowns could have been the end of his dream as an artist, but he continued to work on all his good days.
As for me, my health is good, and as for the head it will, let’s hope, be a matter of time and patience.Vincent to Theo from his stay at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence hospital
He fought depression and mental illness all his life but kept creating an intense and arresting universe of images. Where everyone else saw bleakness he saw inspiration and found beauty. Vincent created a new way of seeing the world for us- one that is founded on faith even in deepest pain. Don Mclean in his beautiful song ‘Vincent’ sang that this world was never meant for someone as beautiful as him. You know what I think? This world needs more of us to love like Vincent did and follow our dreams with the zeal he had- dream our dream and then live that dream in all honesty.
I want to touch people with my art. I want them to say ‘he feels deeply, he feels tenderly.
Vincent Van Gogh
This post is a part of Blogchatter’s initiative to spread awareness around Mental Health.