The Tortured Artist: Vincent Van Gogh

Tortured artist

The origin of “tortured artist” expression

It does not come to a surprise to know that some of the greatest artists we know today have suffered from mental illness. As their world of pain and suffering, from extreme poverty to lose, meet a paintbrush or a camera, these artists used their mental illness to their advantage to paint us a picture mirroring what exactly they were dealing with mentally. A picture is worth a thousand words. A tortured artist transformed his suffering into monumental works of art that tell a familiar modern story that we all know today.

The tortured soul of an unwell person who simply used the only resources he had to express how he saw the world. The paintings that bless the halls of the Vincent Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, bring us closer to the artist who paved the way for the many post-impressionists who followed. Today we look at the beautiful dark life of the tortured artist who gave the stars at night a different meaning for years to come and try to understand the tortured soul of Vincent Van Gogh.

Historic evolution of the expression “tortured artist”

The ancient Greeks

If you’ve never heard the term, a tortured artist is a stock character and real-life stereotype who is in constant torment due to frustrations with art, other people, or the world in general. This was dated back to the likings of Plato, the Athenian philosopher, the first to suggest that tortured artists were something special. In some of this works we could see the words transferred an image of someone mentally unstable or unsettling, he wrote that madness was “a gift of heaven” while “sober sense is merely human”.

Salmoneus, first half of the 5th century BC. Now in the Chicago, Art Institute.
Salmoneus, first half of the 5th century BC. Now in the Chicago, Art Institute.

To ancient Greeks, madness was a state of otherworldliness that could be brought on by divine or demonic forces. Demonic madness, unsurprisingly, was thought bad, and its signs were likely like the signs of mental illness today. But divine madness was a very different thing, and likely very similar to our notion of being in a flow state or being in-the-zone.

The Greeks just believed this creative intensity had a divine origin. The Greeks saw divine origin just about anywhere they looked. The tortured artist was in constant torment, often overwhelmed by own emotions and inner conflict, feeling alienated and misunderstood, at times demonstrating self-destructive behavior, with underlying mental health issues.

But is this concept of the tortured artist a myth or an actual scientifically studied phenomenon? According to some scientists, yes. Very much real, neurologists have suggested that most of the time, illnesses such as schizophrenia or bipolarism, or any form of psychosis, that affects the temporal or frontal lobe of the brain, relate to genetical cognitive disinhibition. This usually allows the person to have spouts of creativeness, that I can only image awfully tries to mimic what the damaged part of their brain is experiencing.

The Romantic Era

Going back to the concept, the Romantic era (1800-1850) was a time when artists of all stripes believed that their art needed to be a free expression of their emotions.

Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1781 tortured artist depecting madness
Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1781

Art was subjective, personal, and often mystical. Profound truths came from madness. The world looked at insane artists as geniuses and heroes because they skated to the far edges of emotional response and then kept on going. Artists are more likely than many non-artists to reveal personal experiences in their work, so if mental illness has been a part of the tortured artist’s life, it is more likely to show up in their work. We know that artists are more likely to reveal personal experiences in their art, so we are more likely to be curious about their personal histories than we are for non-artists.

In comes, Vincent van Gogh, who’s life and artwork defied many standards at the time of his death.

Van Gogh, the tortured artist’s early life

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, after both a grandfather and a brother who had died at birth a year earlier. Born in Groot-Zundert, Holland to upper-middle-class parents, Vincent’s father was a pastor in a Dutch Reformed church, he 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. We know a little about Vincent’s early years other than that he was a quiet child with no obvious artistic talent. He himself would later look back on his happy childhood with great pleasure.

Van Gogh received a fragmentary education: one year at the village school in Zundert, two years at a boarding school in Zevenbergen, and eighteen months at a high school in Tilburg. In 1869, at sixteen he began working at the Hague gallery of the French art dealers Goupil et Cie., in which his uncle Vincent was a partner.

He began to write to his younger brother Theo, a correspondence which continued for the rest of Van Gogh’s life.

Van Gogh's drawing of 87 Hackford Road in London. TOne of the tortured artist's first artworks.
Van Gogh’s drawing of 87 Hackford Road in London

Van Gogh’s job took him to London and Paris, but he didn’t like the work and was dismissed in 1876. He briefly became a teacher in England, and then, deeply interested in Christianity, a preacher in a mining community in southern Belgium.

Art career and style transition

 In 1880, at the age of 27, he decided to become an artist, which no one, not even himself, suspected that he had extraordinary gifts. He painted many self-portraits in this decade.

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat, 1887

His evolution from an inept but impassioned novice into a truly original master was remarkably rapid. He eventually proved to have an exceptional feel for bold, harmonious color effects, and an infallible instinct for choosing simple but memorable compositions. He moved around, teaching himself to draw and paint while also receiving financial support from Theo.

The Paris period

In 1886, the tortured artist Van Gogh joined Theo in Paris and met many artists including Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Pissarro, and Gauguin, with whom he became friends. His style changed significantly under the influence of Impressionism, becoming lighter and brighter. In order to brighten it up, he began painting still lives of flowers.

Vincent Van gogh, Vase with Myosotis and Peonies, 1886, Paris period of thte tortured artist
Vincent Van gogh, Vase with Myosotis and Peonies, 1886

The search for his own idiom led him to experiment with impressionist and postimpressionist techniques and to study the prints of Japanese masters. Within two years Van Gogh had come to terms with the latest development and had forged his own, highly personal style. At the beginning of 1888, Van Gogh, now a mature artist, went south to Arles, in Provence, where he at last began to feel confident about his choice of career. He set out to make a personal contribution to modern art with his daring color combinations.

The landscape around Arles swept the tortured artist away. In the spring he painted numerous scenes of fruit trees in blossom, and in the summer the yellow wheat fields. Although he had some difficulty finding models, he did make portraits, among which were those of the Roulin family. It was typical of Van Gogh’s faith in his own abilities that he decided not to try to sell any work yet but to wait until he had thirty top-class pictures with which he could announce himself to the world.

Vincent Van Gogh tortured artist, Farmhouse in Provence, 1888
Vincent Van Gogh, Farmhouse in Provence, 1888

He cherished the hope that several other artists would come and join him in Arles, where they could all live and work together. The idea seemed to get off to a promising start when Gauguin arrived in October 1888.

Tortured artist’s signs of mental illness

Towards the end of the year, however, his optimism was rudely shattered by the first signs of his illness, a type of epilepsy that took the form of delusions and psychotic attacks, the first of eight episodes or ‘crises’, as he referred to them. Experiencing extreme anxiety, memory loss, and partial paralysis.

It was during one of those seizures that he cut off his left earlobe and went to the asylum. After his third episode, in April 1889 he admitted himself to the Saint-Paul-de-Mausol, an asylum in Saint-Remy. It was during this time that Van Gogh painted some of his most famous pieces, including The Starry Night.

Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night, 1889

Many consider that The Starry Night is Van Gogh’s pinnacle achievement because the swirling night sky took painting beyond a direct representation of the physical world. Unfortunately, the tortured artist could take no solace in the art that many consider being his masterpiece. He claimed that The Starry Night, Irises, and other paintings of that time meant absolutely nothing to him.

Vincent van Gogh: Irises, 1889

The idea that creativity was linked to ‘madness’ was constant at this time, but Van Gogh rejected it, he came to ‘consider madness as an illness like any other.’ He insisted on continuing to paint. There was little treatment available at the time in the asylum, that consisted of bromide and therapy baths. Van Gogh was unable to work where when suffering from bouts of his illness. If he felt well enough, though, he went out to draw and paint in the garden or surroundings of the asylum.

Vincent van Gogh, Field of Poppies, 1889, torured artist at the asylum
Vincent van Gogh, Field of Poppies, 1889

His use of color, which had often been so intense in Arles, became more muted, and he tried to make his brushwork more graphic. In the closing months of the year, he had a success when he exhibited two of his paintings at the fifth exhibition of Société des artistes independents. Van Gogh also made many “translations in color” of prints by some of his favorite artists, like Millet and Eugene Delacroix. He found them consoling, and they helped him keep in practice.

Van Gogh’s death and diagnoses 

He later left Saint-Remy in May 1890 and went north again, this time to the rustic village of Auvers-sur-Oise, near Paris closer to his brother Theo, where he would go on to create some of his most famous artwork.

Vincent van Gogh, Wheatfield with Crows, 1890

July of that year, the tortured artist shot himself and died two days later. Although official history maintains that Van Gogh committed suicide, some of the most recent research reveals that Van Gogh’s death might have been caused by an accident and there are even speculations of homicide.

Framing Van Gogh as a mad genius reduces him to his mental health and illness. He wasn’t a great painter because of poor mental health. Nor did he allow it to stop him from painting. In the eyes of many, his unconventional style was a symptom of illness.

 Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889 (tortured artist)
 Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889

Many psychiatrists have attempted to forensically diagnose Vincent van Gogh’s mental health issues. The list of possibilities includes schizophrenia, porphyria, results in mental disturbances, bipolar disorder, temporal lobe epilepsy, Geschwind syndrome, and autism.

The tortured artist fascination with the yellow color

A striking feature of Van Gogh’s famous painting “The Starry Night” is the yellow corona surrounding each star. The use of yellow characterizes many of the paintings of this Dutch post-impressionist, and much speculation surrounds Van Gogh’s fascination with this vibrant pigment.

Vincent van Gogh, The Yellow House, 1888
Vincent van Gogh, The Yellow House, 1888

Did he simply like the color, or did he suffer from the influence of some medical condition? Because numerous disorders have been diagnosed posthumously in Van Gogh, various theories proposed to explain how his physical state may have influenced his work. Two theories center on why he used so much yellow.

Excessive consumption of certain sort of spirits and drugs

First, he was fond of absinthe, a popular liquor containing thujone. Excessive consumption of this liquid may cause the consumer to see all objects with a yellow hue.

Vincent van Gogh, The Night Café, 1888

A second and more likely explanation involves overmedication with digitalis. People receiving large and repeated doses of this drug often see the world with a yellow-green tint. They complain of seeing yellow spots surrounded by coronas, much like those in “The Starry Night.”

Chronical mental illness

Evidence also suggests that he had manic depression, a chronic mental illness thought affects many creative people. Although treatment with lithium carbonate is now available, the drug also dampens creative abilities. Many people believe that artists overcome suffering from their creative acts, but suffering may also overwhelm the artist.

Although he lived a sad and depressing life, where each breathed consisted of self-doubting and manic states of mind, his incredible ability to create another world through his work will forever live on. The world admires his work and admirable simply because he was able to paint us a picture of the world through his eyes. His mental health didn’t define his artwork and will go down in history as one of the best artists in the world. A poor tortured artist who doubted his abilities because no one understood his colorful and majestically world. Suffering for his sanity, the madness that was due to a chemical unbalance, perhaps the world wasn’t meant for someone as beautiful as the tortured artist Vincent van Gogh.

Written by Karen Pasos.

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