N.A: Upon cleaning my PC, I came across this essay assignment. This was written for my “Socioaffective Neuroscience” class I had during my Masters. I didn’t get quite a good grade on it because, as the teaching assistant declared, it was more of a biography than actual part of the assignment – but he nonetheless said he quite enjoyed reading it. Written in 2018, slightly adapted.
In Antonin Artaud’s essay of appraisal for Van Gogh, ’Van Gogh: le suicidé de la société’, the author describes the dutch painter as someone who was merely human, in possession of stable mental health. Repeatedly, he blames three characters for Van Gogh’s suicide: his brother Theo Van Gogh, his doctor Paul-Ferdinand Gachet and above it all, society. Nevertheless, these statements are not essentially true. Van Gogh found profound financial and emotional help from his brother, evidenced by the exchanged letters between the two. Moreover, the painter also cultivated some affection towards Dr. Gachet, as seen by the portrait done of the doctor.
Not much can be said about the society, as the view of mental illness at the middle of the 19th century was still blurred and stained with negative stigmatization. Bipolar disorder, for instance, was first described around the same time by two French psychiatrists: Jules Baillarger in January 1854, and Jean-Pierre Falret, only two weeks later, upon the names of “dual-form insanity” and “circular insanity”, respectively. Schizophrenia was first identified three decades later by Dr. Emile Kraepelin, in 1887.
Vincent Van Gogh was born on 1853 in the town of Zundert, in the Netherlands, just one year before the first description of bipolar disorder, and died on 1890, not so long after the first description of schizophrenia. Thus, society, after all, was not prepared to deal with such a character who suffered from mental unbalance, which might have acted in accordance to Artaud’s view on whom to blame for the suicide. The fact that the painter lived throughout the period between the discovery of these two mental illness could have refrained the doctors to treat him accordingly. It is worth noting that the clear diagnose of Van Gogh’s mental illness is still unsure: more than 30 different diagnoses where described for the painter, such as schizophrenia, temporal lobe epilepsy and others, but the best established and accepted seems to be bipolar disorder.
Bipolar disorder (BD), also known as manic-depressive illness, is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels and the ability to carry out daily-life activities. People with the disorder often experience feelings of intense emotion, such as mania, changes in sleep patterns and activity levels, and unusual behaviours. It affects 1% of the world population irrespective of nationality, ethnic origin or socioeconomic status.
Van Gogh is not the only known artist that has suffered from bipolar disorder. In the list, we could also include the composers Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann; the painter Edvard Munch; the writer Hemingway; the actress Marilyn Monroe; and musicians such as Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse; together with many others. Schizophrenia, another affective disorder that encompasses 0.3 to 0.7% of the population, is characterized by abnormal behaviour and a distance from reality. Hearing voices, conspiracy plots, depression and reduced social engagements are some of the most common symptoms. Artists such as the previously mentioned Antonin Artaud, the sculptor Camille Claudel, the writer Zelda Fitzgerald and singers Joey Ramone and Nancy Spungen are examples of famous artists that had bared schizophrenia.
In pop culture it is almost a cliché that artists are tormented souls, with intense mood swings going from bottom-of-the-pit depression to a childlike euphoria in just a very short time span. However, is such an affirmation an exaggeration of the truth or simply a one-to-one relationship? Anecdotal evidence from self-reports and autobiographies seem to suggest a link between artistic and creative endeavours and mood disorders, especially bipolar disorder. For instance, a study published in 1997 with a cohort of writers from University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop  showed that the rates of mood disorders were extremely high in the writers, with 80% of them presenting some type of mood disorder and 30% showing bipolar disorder.
Many bipolar disorder patients who are in fact artists (plastic artists, writers, poets, theater producers, etc) report fear of compromising their creativity whilst undergoing treatment, thinking that settling down their emotions might send away their muse. Mogens Schou investigated 24 artists with manic-depression who were treated with lithium to assess whether the treatment would lead to a decrease in creativity abilities . Interestingly, half of the reports were of improvement, saying that the treatment actually increased their creative capacities. Another quarter of the group reported no change in productivity, and the remaining portion of artists said that their creativity powers were diminished.
Even though one can find studies that hint to a link between social and affective disorders and the artistic gift, this link is still fragile and a matter of controversy, as there are not enough evidence to establish a relationship between these two phenomena. A group on the United States, upon investigating the link between creativity and schizophrenia, found the correlation to be negative , however stating that this finding could be due to the many possible different ways of assessing creativity. Having a finite answer to this “egg or chicken” dilemma might still be far ahead, but at least it still bring us interesting discussions on the matter.
Van Gogh died in 1890, two days after having shot himself in the chest, having only sold one painting in his whole life. Today, he is graced with exhibitions worldwide that name him one of the most talented, genius artists of history. We might wonder what is it about his paintings that make them so appealing to the eyes – is it the confusion, yet orchestral harmonization of colours? Or the spasms of the brush strokes, that seem to undulate and dance right before our eyes? Perhaps what speak to us are the eyes of Van Gogh’s characters, endowed with pain, hysteria, hallucination, serenity, making the whole painting come to life before us. It is indeed an uttermost achievement to notice that, even in agony and excruciating conditions of mental health, Van Gogh was still able to make colourful, vibrant and lively paintings – leading the viewer to an extreme state of catharsis, pathos, awe and, above all, compassion.
 Nancy C Andreasen. Creativity and mental illness: Prevalence rates in writers and their first-degree relatives.
Eminent creativity, everyday creativity, and health, pages 7–18, 1997.
 Mogens Schou. Artistic Productivity and Lithium Prophylaxis in Manic-Depressive Illness By. The British
Journal of Psychiatry, 135(2):97–103, 1979.
 Acar, S., Chen, X., & Cayirdag, N. (2018). Schizophrenia and creativity: A meta-analytic review. Schizophrenia research, 195, 23-31.