Why was vincent van gogh depressed
Bipolar, Schizophrenia, or Something Else?
More than a century after his passing, researchers are still trying to unravel the mystery of the legendary painter’s mental health.Share on PinterestA visitor looks the painting ‘Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear (Autoportrait a l’oreille bandee)’ (1889) by Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh during the press visit of the exhibition ‘The Courtauld Collection: A Vision for Impressionism’ at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris on February 15, 2019. – The exhibition, running from February 20 to June 17, 2019, presents the collection of the British industrialist and art patron Samuel Courtauld. The collection, one of the most significative of Impressionist painters, is shown in Paris for the first time in 60 years. (Photo by FRANCOIS GUILLOT / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE – MANDATORY MENTION OF THE ARTIST UPON PUBLICATION – TO ILLUSTRATE THE EVENT AS SPECIFIED IN THE CAPTION (Photo credit should read FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP via Getty Images)
Post-Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh is one of the most influential and celebrated artists of all time. But among mental health experts, his life and legacy hold a different significance.
Arguably one of the most famous examples of an artist who experienced public challenges with mental illness, most experts agree that van Gogh lived with psychosis in some form.
But psychosis is a symptom of other disorders, not a diagnosis in itself.
The question of what condition the artist may have had has been the subject of speculation for decades. Doctors, psychologists, and historians alike have tried — and largely failed — to come to a consensus.
In 2016, Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum hosted a symposium of 35 psychiatrists, psychologists, neurologists, doctors, and art historians to debate van Gogh’s possible diagnoses. Experts examined van Gogh’s life and mental health using evidence from his:
- paintings and artwork
- personal documents
Though the discussion of van Gogh’s mental health may never be settled, researchers believe they’re closer than ever to pinpointing mental health conditions the artistic genius may have lived with.
Born to a poor family in the Netherlands in 1853, van Gogh became seriously interested in art at the age of 15 when he began working at his uncle’s art dealership. By his 20s, van Gogh was painting regularly.
Despite his renown today, van Gogh did not see success as an artist in his lifetime, and largely lived in poverty.
Van Gogh experienced a breakdown at age 20 after the woman he loved rejected his marriage proposal. But it wasn’t until his 30s that his mental health took a dramatic downturn.
On December 23, 1888, van Gogh famously cut off his own ear after an argument with his friend and roommate, Paul Gauguin. Less than 2 years later on July 29, 1890, van Gogh died at age 37 as a result of injuries from a self-inflicted gunshot wound he sustained 2 days earlier.
Since then, many medical and psychological theories attempted to explain what van Gogh may have experienced.
Van Gogh chronicled many of his mental health symptoms in the letters he wrote. His symptoms were also described in the official register at the Saint-Rémy asylum where Van Gogh admitted himself in 1889.
Some of the psychiatric symptoms the artist likely experienced included:
- “absent-mindedness,” or memory loss
Van Gogh also experienced physical symptoms, including:
- digestive problems
- erectile dysfunction
Documents from the time also suggest that van Gogh periodically went into a “stupor,” described as unresponsiveness. Experts believe it’s possible that this could have been a form of catatonia.
For decades, experts and researchers have offered alternative theories about what conditions van Gogh may have lived with.
After van Gogh cut off his ear in December 1888, he was diagnosed by his physician with “acute mania with generalized delirium” and “mental epilepsy”. The artist himself reportedly also believed that he had this condition.
Epilepsy is a neurological condition causing abnormal brain activity that can result in seizures.
Epilepsy commonly occurs alongside other mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety, and can also sometimes cause psychosis.
Because van Gogh reportedly experienced periods of high energy and productivity, often followed by episodes of depression and extreme fatigue, many experts have theorized that the artist lived with bipolar disorder.
In a 2020 analysis of van Gogh’s mental health, three art historians concluded that he most likely developed bipolar disorder as a young adult. In addition to extreme shifts in mood, bipolar disorder can also cause other symptoms van Gogh reportedly lived with, including:
- memory problems
Borderline personality disorder (BPD)
Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a personality disorder that affects a person’s mood and behavior.
In a 2000 analysis, the Dutch psychiatrist Erwin van Meekeren argued that van Gogh likely lived with this disorder. Van Meekeren, who wrote the book “Starry Starry Night: Life and Psychiatric History of Vincent van Gogh,” pointed out that most experts base their diagnoses on van Gogh’s most extreme symptoms.
But according to van Meekeren, van Gogh showed signs of BPD throughout most of his life, including:
- intense fear of abandonment
- unstable self-image
In a 2020 assessment, experts concluded that although BPD couldn’t necessarily explain van Gogh’s symptoms, it was most likely an underlying cause of another condition for van Gogh, such as bipolar disorder.
Many historians and doctors have speculated that van Gogh may have experienced symptoms of alcohol withdrawal due to alcohol use disorder (AUD).
Van Gogh became increasingly dependent on alcohol in the late 1880s, and was forced to quit “cold turkey” during multiple hospital stays between 1888 and 1889. Findings from a 2020 study showed that van Gogh was diagnosed with “delirium” after one hospital admittance, likely caused in part by alcohol withdrawal.
Researchers argue that the symptoms van Gogh experienced during these years may be signs of alcohol withdrawal, such as:
Although van Gogh’s history of mental illness has frequently been associated with schizophrenia over the years, researchers and experts have largely ruled out a possible diagnosis.
Van Gogh’s episodes of psychosis were brief and punctuated by periods of complete recovery. However, people with schizophrenia don’t typically experience this type of periodic remission.
Van Gogh syndrome is an unofficial term for repetitive self-mutilation, inspired by van Gogh’s most infamous episode of self-harm when he cut off his ear in 1888.
However, van Gogh syndrome is not recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5). Experts are wary of using the term, since the definition of van Gogh syndrome is vague and lacks clear diagnostic markers.
Non-suicidal self-injury disorder
The closest diagnosis to van Gogh syndrome in the DSM-5 is non-suicidal self-injury disorder.
The criteria for this diagnosis are engaging in self-injury for at least 5 days with the intention of bodily harm, but not suicide, and can involve:
- hitting or punching oneself
- extreme scratching
- more rarely, self-mutilation
Getting help for a crisis
If you think you or someone you know might have van Gogh syndrome or non-suicidal self-injury disorder, it’s important to seek help from a doctor or therapist immediately.
If you feel like you’re having a mental health emergency, you can:
- Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 for English and 888-628-9454 for Spanish
- Chat with professionals at Lifeline Chat
- Text “HOME” to the Crisis Text Line at 741741
- Check out Befrienders Worldwide or Suicide Stop if you’re not in the United States and need to find your country’s crisis hotline
If you decide to call an emergency number like 911, ask the operator to send someone trained in mental health, like Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) officers.
Vincent van Gogh’s story is a tragic one. Though considered one of the most influential and important artists of all time, van Gogh endured a deeply challenging life without success, fame, or fortune.
Some connect van Gogh’s legacy of artistic genius with his history of mental health challenges. The various conditions and symptoms the artist may have experienced continues to inspire and mystify experts, researchers, and historians today.
Accurately diagnosing someone no longer living with any condition is impossible. But thanks to letters written by van Gogh himself, as well as documents from his hospital stays and his own artwork, experts are closer than ever to drawing conclusions about his mental health and life.
Though van Gogh was diagnosed with epilepsy in his lifetime, doctors and historians believe the artist may have also lived with:
- bipolar disorder
- borderline personality disorder (BPD)
- substance use disorder (SUD)
It’s likely that van Gogh lived with more than one — or some combination of — these disorders, as many commonly co-occur with each other.
No matter what conditions van Gogh may have had, modern medicine offers far more tools to diagnose and treat mental health disorders. If you think you may be experiencing a mental health disorder, or even a crisis, consider reaching out to a physician or therapist.
Not sure where to begin? Check out Psych Central’s guide to finding mental health support.
Vincent's Illness and the Healing Power of Art
Vincent's Illness and the Healing Power of Art
Vincent van Gogh was 35 years old when he cut off his left ear just before Christmas, 1888. It was the beginning of a period of uncertainty. Several severe crises and attacks followed, but it remained unclear what exactly Vincent was suffering from. Yet, it had a serious impact on his life.
How did Vincent deal with the uncertainties of his during this difficult time?
Vincent’s dream was to have his own artists’ community in his Yellow House in Arles. When his painter friend Paul Gauguin arrived in October 1888, this dream seemed to come true. At first, the artists worked happily side by side, but soon the situation deteriorated.
Discussions about art became more frequent, and sometimes heated. Vincent found it important to work from reality. Gauguin painted from memory, from his imagination.
Vincent van Gogh, The Yellow House (The Street), 1888
Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Gauguin, 1888
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Vincent van Gogh, Gauguin’s Chair, 1888 / Vincent van Gogh, Van Gogh's Chair, 1888, The National Gallery, London
Difference of Opinion
The difference of opinion between the two friends is clearly visible in these two works. You could see them as portraits of the artists.
In Vincent’s painting Gauguin’s Chair, the lamp, candlestick, and the book refer to the nocturnal dream world, and therefore to the imagination. In Van Gogh’s Chair, the onions represent nature, i.e. painting from reality.
Report of the ear incident on the front page of the Forum Républicain, 30 December 1888.
The situation came to a head on 23 December, 1888. After a heated argument, Vincent, in utter confusion, cut off his left ear.
He wrapped his ear in paper and took it to a prostitute in the village. The girl fainted and the entire brothel was in commotion. They called the police, who found the artist at his home the following morning. Vincent was hospitalised, and Gauguin returned to . The dream was shattered.
There was an article in the local newspaper about the incident.
Vincent had been in hospital for less than a day when he was visited by his brother Theo. The latter had left Paris in a hurry and travelled by train to be with his brother. Vincent’s friends , and the Protestant minister Fréderic Salles from Arles also came to see him. During the months that followed, these men were Vincent’s constant companions in Arles.
At the hospital, Vincent was treated by assistant physician Dr Félix Rey. Despite Dr Rey’s , however, Vincent’s situation deteriorated. He even had to spend several days in solitary confinement.
The hospital’s main physician sent a certificate and letter to the mayor, stating that ‘Mr Vincent is suffering from insanity’. He recommended that Vincent be committed to a psychiatric hospital, ‘for the care that this unfortunate person is receiving at our institution is not sufficient to bring him to reason’.
Vincent van Gogh, Portret van Félix Rey, 1889, Poesjkin Museum, Moskou
Letter from Félix Rey to Irving Stone with drawings of Vincent van Gogh’s mutilated ear, 18 August 1930, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley
The question whether Van Gogh cut off his whole ear or only part of it, remained unanswered for a long time. However, due to these drawings by Dr Rey that were discovered recently, we now know for certain that Vincent cut off his entire ear.
Rey made the sketches for author Irving Stone in 1930. Stone was working on a novel about Vincent’s life. Commenting on the top drawing, Rey wrote, ‘The ear was cut off with a razor along the dotted line.’
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Fortunately, there was no need to commit Vincent to a psychiatric hospital then. He slowly recovered and was allowed to go home after two weeks. There, he tried to pick up the pieces and began painting again. He wrote to Theo, ‘…I didn’t know that one could break one’s brain and that afterwards that got better too.’
Vincent van Gogh, Still Life with a Plate of Onions, 1889, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo.
In addition to two self-portraits of him with his bandaged ear, Vincent created this still life with onions.
He included mostly personal objects, such as his pipe and tobacco. Placed beside these are the envelope of a letter by his brother Theo, an empty bottle of absinthe, and a popular handbook that he consulted for self-medication.
Ill in Arles
Unfortunately, Vincent’s situation soon deteriorated again. More crises and hospitalisations followed. During the attacks, Vincent was utterly confused and had no idea what he was saying or doing. This affected not only him, but also the people around him.
His friends and family were worried, his neighbours had even become afraid of him. They started a petition to ensure that Vincent was locked up in a psychiatric hospital. In the petition, they declared he was 'not of sound mind, and is the subject of fear of all the residents of the neighbourhood'.
Vincent was very sad about this: ‘At least I have not harmed anyone and I am not dangerous to anyone,’ he told the Reverend Fréderic Salles.
Vincent recovered, eventually, making a compulsory admission unnecessary. But he knew things couldn’t go on like this. Vincent wanted to stay in Arles, but no longer dared to live on his own.
In May 1889, he voluntarily had himself admitted to the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole psychiatric hospital in Saint-Rémy.
Vincent van Gogh, Garden of the Asylum, 1889
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A Year in the Psychiatric Institution
Accompanied by the Reverend Fréderic Salles, Vincent arrived at the psychiatric hospital on 8 May 1889. He would eventually spend a year there. ‘Mr Vincent was perfectly calm and explained his illness to the director himself.’ Dr Peyron entered Vincent’s information and his in the admissions register.
Painting as a Remedy
Initially, the rhythm and structure of life at the psychiatric hospital calmed Vincent down. He used another cell as his studio, and when he felt well enough, he was allowed to work outside the hospital.
Vincent’s studio overlooked the garden of the institution. He often worked there, producing the most beautiful drawings and paintings. Sometimes, he painted the garden as a whole, sometimes he created close-ups of flowers, plants, and all kinds of small creatures he found there.
Painting was the best remedy for his psychiatric disorder, but he couldn’t work during attacks and indeed wasn’t allowed to. Doing nothing was unbearable for Vincent.
Vincent van Gogh, Saint-Paul Asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, 1889, Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Vincent van Gogh, Window in the Studio, 1889
Vincent van Gogh, Garden of the Asylum, 1889
Vincent van Gogh, Giant Peacock Moth, 1889
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A Candid Letter
In one of his letters to his brother Theo written at the institution, Vincent was candid about his psychiatric disorder and how he looked back on his difficult time in Arles:
To Theo van Gogh, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, c. Thursday, 23 May 1889
‘Now the shock had been such that it disgusted me even to move, and nothing would have been so agreeable to me as never to wake up again. At present this horror of life is already less pronounced, and the melancholy less acute. But I still have absolutely no will...’
He also wrote about other people in the hospital. At first, Vincent was afraid of them. They could sometimes be heard shouting in the corridors. But in the end, the sight of and contact with these fellow patients offered him comfort and reassurance.
‘I observe in others that, like me, they too have heard sounds and strange voices during their crises, that things also appeared to change before their eyes. And that softens the horror that I retained at first of the crisis I had... Had I not seen other mad people at close hand I wouldn’t have been able to rid myself of thinking about it all the time.’
During the first few months, Vincent did not suffer any new crises, increasing his hopes for recovery. But in July, things went badly wrong again. He was painting a quarry when he felt a new attack coming on. More crises followed.
The return of his condition made Vincent fearful and insecure. His hopes for a full recovery were dashed. ‘For many days I’ve been absolutely distraught, and it’s to be presumed that these crises will recur in the future, it is ABOMINABLE.’
Vincent van Gogh, Entrance to a Quarry, 1889
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Longing to Paint
The months that followed were marked by alternating periods of crises, recovery and health. Vincent had ‘little or no hope’ of ever getting better, but still longed to paint.
Thus, whenever he felt well enough, he continued to work. One of the works he painted during this period is this Pietà after a print of a painting by Delacroix. Perhaps Vincent identified himself with the recently deceased Christ? ‘… [I]n the very suffering religious thoughts sometimes console me a great deal,’ he wrote to Theo.
Célestin François Nanteuil, Pietà (after Delacroix), 1848-1852 // Vincent van Gogh, Pietà (after Delacroix), 1889.
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Vincent van Gogh, Doctor Gachet, 1890, private collection.
Time to Leave
Vincent began to feel increasingly trapped at the psychiatric hospital and wanted to leave as soon as possible.
After a year, in May 1890, he left for Auvers in northern France. There, he was closer to Theo, who lived in Paris. Dr Gachet from Auvers was asked to take care of him.
The Final Months
Vincent found it difficult to deal with the uncertainty about his future and illness. He felt lonely and depressed. Nevertheless, he was exceptionally productive in Auvers. Within a period of seventy days, he produced some 75 paintings and over a hundred sketches and drawings of the picturesque village and vast cornfields and forests surrounding it.
Nature gave him comfort and strength. And despite the uncertainty about his future, Vincent continued to believe in the healing power of painting.
You can read more about Vincent’s final months in Auvers in the story ‘The End of a Difficult Road’.
In Paris, Gauguin told his artist friend Bernard about the incident. Gauguin said that after their argument, Vincent came after him.
In his autobiographical novel Avant et Après, which Gauguin wrote later, he says that Vincent threatened him with a razor. Perhaps Gauguin protected Vincent earlier by remaining silent about the threat.
Vincent van Gogh and Joseph Roulin had been good friends since the summer. They often went for a drink together, and Vincent portrayed his entire family.
As a treatment, Dr Rey prescribed bromide, a sedative that was widely used as a medicine in the 19th century. Also, he recommended quinquina, a medicinal wine with cinchona bark extract that was used to treat fever.
Registration of Vincent’s admission to the asylum, 1889–90
Dr Peyron determined that Van Gogh was suffering from a form of epilepsy, accompanied by acute insanity and hallucinations. He based this on the diagnosis of the doctors in Arles and Vincent’s own description of his attacks.
Vincent spoke of ‘his illness’, nowadays we prefer to speak of his psychiatric disorder.
Dutch psychiatrists diagnosed Van GoghIrina Ziganshina
In an article on the genius artist's mental health, published in the International Journal of Bipolar Disorders, psychiatrists list his past problems, such as bipolar disorder, withdrawal symptoms, depression and epilepsy, reports The Guardian. nine0003
Vincent van Gogh died on July 29, 1890, two days after he shot himself in the stomach with a revolver while working in the fields. Since then, many medical and psychological hypotheses have been put forward as to what led the artist to attempt suicide.
Dutch researchers, led by Professor of Psychiatry Willem Nolen from the University of Groningen, have provided a scientific overview of Van Gogh's mental problems and his most likely diagnoses. To do this, they carefully studied the correspondence of the artist - 902 letters, 820 of which were written to his brother Theo and other relatives, and interviewed by three art historians considered Van Gogh experts.
Van Gogh's self-portrait, kept in the National Museum in Oslo, is considered by the authors of a new study to be one of the few evidences of the artist's severe mental problems.
In his youth, scientists believe, the artist probably developed bipolar disorder with signs of borderline personality disorder. Alcohol use combined with malnutrition worsened his condition, then psychosocial problems were added to this. Together, this led to a crisis that resulted in the ear cutting incident. After that, from December 1888 to May 1889year, Van Gogh was hospitalized three times in Arles, after which he was transferred to the hospital of Saint-Remy-de-Provence. During his hospitalizations, Van Gogh wrote in letters of "unbearable hallucinations", anxiety, and nightmares. “Mental or nervous fever or madness,” he wrote of his condition, “I don’t know exactly how to say about it and what word to call it.”
Researchers suggest that these symptoms were related to the forced withdrawal from alcohol. Two episodes of delirium associated with withdrawal were accompanied by a severe depression from which Van Gogh never recovered, and this eventually led to his suicide. nine0003
“Those who consume large amounts of alcohol in combination with malnutrition are at risk of impaired brain function, including psychiatric problems,” the researchers wrote. “Furthermore, stopping abruptly when drinking excessively can lead to withdrawal symptoms, including delirium.
It is therefore likely that at least the first case of brief psychosis in Arles, which occurred immediately after the ear incident, in which he probably stopped drinking abruptly, was in fact an alcohol withdrawal delirium. Only later, in Saint-Remy, when he was forced to reduce alcohol to a minimum or even completely give up alcohol, did he manage to solve this problem, and then he no longer had withdrawal symptoms. nine0003
Dutch researchers have debunked several popular theories about Van Gogh's mental health, including that he was schizophrenic, saying he didn't show symptoms like an emotional breakdown. They also suggest that Van Gogh was unlikely to have syphilis, although he was treated for gonorrhea, and Theo, according to some sources, died six months after the death of his brother precisely from this infection. In the papers of Van Gogh's doctors, scientists did not find any hints of syphilis.
However, according to the researchers, in the last months of his life, the artist could suffer from another disease - temporal lobe epilepsy, which led to "a very precarious state of mind, when anxiety, delirium and hallucinations succeeded each other." nine0003
The scientists summarize their research as follows: “Despite all these problems that contributed to illness, we would like to emphasize that Van Gogh was not only a great and very influential artist, but also an intelligent person with great willpower, stamina and perseverance. He probably had a strong physique. He was able to arouse compassion, and he himself felt compassion for those who were less fortunate. And he was a passionate man with a strong temperament. For many years he continued to paint, including in the most difficult periods of his life. Only during the most severe episodes of psychosis did he temporarily stop working. nine0003
Only a few paintings can be traced to his state of mind, for example, in a self-portrait kept in the Oslo Museum, which he painted at the end of a depressive episode in July-August 1889. As for the unfinished "Roots of the Tree", the last work that Van Gogh painted on the morning of the day he shot himself, the question often arises whether he depicted in this picture his struggle for life. But art historians consider this unlikely, rather this is the story that provides food for biographers. nine0003
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Today, 05:189006 Vincent van Gogh
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