Vincent Van Gogh

       Vincent Van Gogh, an exceptionally talented painter, is well known for painting “Starry Night”, cutting his own ear off, and committing suicide, but most people do not know the origin of his troubled mind. Physicians have diagnosed Van Gogh with over 30 diseases, but manic depression seems to be the best diagnoses. Dr. Whybrow, a UCLA psychiatrist, has studied in depth Van Gogh’s life and believes he “suffered 13 psychotic episodes that lasted from one week to two months” (His Take on Van Gogh’s Illness). His episodes are characterized by periods of “acute mental derangement and disability..separated by intervals of lucidity and creativity” (Historical Medicine). During the periods of depression Van Gogh used self mutilation, and eventually committed suicide, but during his manic periods he produced some of his best work. After looking at Van Gogh’s works, one can see how the emotions evoked in looking at his paintings match the emotions he experienced while creating his works throughout the highs and lows of his mad life.

       Each one of Van Gogh’s paintings seems to evoke extreme emotions on both ends of the spectrum, happy and sad. In parallel, Van Gogh was experiencing extreme and varying emotions while he created his masterpieces. Perhaps his most well know painting is “Starry Night” and when I first look at this painting it feels magical, yet gloomy. Van Gogh painted “Starry Night” while he was recovering in an asylum, and therefore in the midst of one of his episodes. The deep blues and cool colors portray a feeling of depression which is probably how Van Gogh was feeling. Other examples of paintings that illustrate Van Gogh’s episodes of melancholy include “The Potato Eaters” and “The Flying Fox” (UCLA Psychiatrist Gives His Take on Van Gogh’s Illness). Both of these paintings were painted in the years 1883-1886, a depressed part of Van Gogh’s life. We have evidence that Van Gogh was depressed during these years from letters exchanged between Van Gogh and his brother Theo. The sepia color palette in these two paintings seems to express his depression. However, many of his other paintings capture happier, exciting emotions that Van Gogh probably experienced during his manic episodes. For example, his paintings “Orchard with Blossoming Apricot Trees” (1888) and “Boulevard de Clichy” (1887) are both depictions of happy scenes. Van Gogh created both of these paintings during a happier time in his life after he moved to Paris with his brother Theo in 1886 ( (UCLA Psychiatrist Gives His Take on Van Gogh’s Illness). The variety in Van Gogh’s works illustrates his differing, extreme moods that enhanced his creativity.

       In my opinion, the extreme emotions Van Gogh experienced with his manic depression helped improve his work and make him more creative and productive. However, even without manic depression I believe Van Gogh would have still been a very talented painter. Dr. Whybrow has evidence that during the final 70 days of Van Gogh’s life he was “hyperactive, producing 77 paintings and 30 drawings” showing how during his manic episodes he needed little sleep and was very productive, a quality he would not have had if he did not suffer from manic depression (UCLA Psychiatrist Gives His Take on Van Gogh’s Illness). Van Gogh’s madness was, in my opinion, both a gift and a curse. On the one hand it helped his creativity, but it was also a curse because his depression drove him to self mutilation and suicide at the age of 37.






After reading Dr. Kay Jamison’s memoir, An Unquiet Mind, I have become intrigued with the connection between creativity and madness. In her memoir, Dr. Kay Jamison details what it is like to live with manic-depressive disorder, also known as bipolar disorder, which is characterized by extreme mood swings ranging from suicidal and depressed to completely manic. The age of onset for this illness is usually in the mid to late twenties and most patients experience a few mood episodes each year. This disorder takes two forms: Bipolar I disorder and Bipolar II disorder. Bipolar I is when “the patients have had at least one full manic or mixed episode during the course of the disorder, and may have had one or more depressive episodes” (Quality of Life Research). Bipolar II disorder is when the patient has severe depressive episodes and some hypomanic episodes. During manic episodes, patients endure symptoms such as being so talkative to the point where he/she almost does not make sense, feeling restless, having constant racing thoughts and ideas, and having a very high sense of self worth (Bipolar Disorder). During the depressed episodes, patients experience feeling worthless, hopeless, and tired. Depending on the patient, manic and depressed episodes can last from a few days to a few months.

I believe it is during the episodes of mania that provide artists, musicians, politicians, etc. with creative and innovative ideas, and it is the depressions that provide them with the focus to complete and edit their work. However, managing these extreme moods is an ongoing struggle throughout many patients’ lives because some people, including Dr. Kay Jamison, are at first unwilling to give up their periods of extreme mania and creativity in order to have stable moods and a more normal life. Dr. Kay Jamison describes her life living with manic-depression as “a loopy but intense life: marvelous, ghastly, dreadful, indescribably difficult, gloriously and unexpectedly easy, complicated, great fun and a no-exit nightmare” (An Unquiet Mind 132). Thus, after reading Dr. Jamison’s memoir I am left with the question of whether to consider manic-depressive disorder a gift or a curse.