The Man Behind the Stars: Do Mental Illness And Creativity Have A Connection?
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The Man Behind the Stars: Do Mental Illness And Creativity Have A Connection?

Vincent van Gogh and mental illness.

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The Man Behind the Stars: Do Mental Illness And Creativity Have A Connection?
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The Starry Night is regarded amongst Van Gogh’s finest works and is one of the most recognizable paintings in the history of Western culture. But this is the extent most people know about the famous oil on canvas painting.

Just by viewing the work of Van Gogh it is noticed that there is a sense of sadness depicted in his paintings—an emotion people are drawn to. Even in his brightest painting, Sunflowers, you can feel it.

The Starry Night was painted in June of 1889, depicting the view of Van Gogh’s asylum room at Saint-Remy-de-Provence. Van Gogh described it as the view, just before sunrise, through the iron-barred window, with the addition of an idealized village. After Van Gogh’s mental breakdown, he admitted himself to the asylum, but was still able to do the thing he loved.

After many studies, physicians and psychiatrists have tried to diagnose Van Gogh with many different mental and physical disorders. Many of these can be found here: Mental and Physical Health. One of the most common diagnostics is Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, which is believed to have been aggravated by his use of absinthe. TLE was often treated with a prescription drug that can cause one to see in yellow or see yellow spots (Van Gogh is famously known for his love of this color).

Another of his debated conditions is lead poisoning. Van Gogh used lead-based oil paints and was believed to have suffered from lead poisoning from nibbling on paint chips. During some of his major depressions he tried to poison himself by drinking the paint. One of the symptoms of lead poisoning is swelling of the retinas which can cause one to see light in circles like halos around objects—like in The Starry Night and other paintings of Van Gogh’s.

There are many other theories and diagnoses, but the one thing doctors have all agreed on is that Vincent van Gogh was suffering from depression--the mental illness that affects 6.7% of the US population. Psychologists and physicians have based this diagnosis off of Van Gogh’s personality traits and his hundreds of letters. Many of his writings contain passages that hint at and even boldly suggest the state of his being:

“I strongly advise you to smoke a pipe; it is a remedy for the blues, which I happen to have had now and then lately.”

“And sometimes one involuntarily becomes terribly depressed, if only for a moment, often just when one is feeling cheerful, as I really am even now. That's what happened this morning; these are evil hours when one feels quite helpless and faint with overexertion.”

“So instead of giving in to despair I chose active melancholy, in so far as I was capable of activity, in other words I chose the kind of melancholy that hopes, that strives and that seeks, in preference to the melancholy that despairs numbly and in distress.”

“But I am so angry with myself now 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.”

“I had collected and mounted my hundred studies, and when I had finished the job, a rather melancholy feeling of 'what's the use?' came over me.”

“How much sadness there is in life, nevertheless one must not get melancholy, and one must seek distraction in other things, and the right thing is to work, but there are moments when one only finds rest in the conviction: 'Misfortune will not spare me either.'"

“When I stopped drinking, when I stopped smoking so much, when I began to think again instead of trying not to think - Good Lord, the depression and the prostration of it!”

“What am I to say about these last two months? Things didn't go well at all. I am sadder and more wretched than I can say, and I do not know at all where I have got to.”

More from Van Gogh's Letters.

Jaqueline Novak, a comedian, recently addressed why the connection between mental illness and creativity is absurd and poorly argued. She starts off her powerful discourse by pointing out the flaw in some logic. “People like to say-Oh what if we had antidepressants back in Van Gogh’s day? We wouldn’t have Starry Night—and it’s like yeah, and a fellow human wouldn’t have cut his ear off.” (Creativity and Mental Illness, Huffington Post)

If we had antidepressants back in Van Gogh’s day, how many more Starry Night’s would we have? Could we have spared someone from admitting himself into an asylum?

Vincent van Gogh has been remembered for his brilliant artwork and clinical depression. But could he also be remembered as someone who lived with a mental illness and fought every day to continue living, and breathing, and creating?


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