Stop Romanticizing Mental Illness in Art | Vincent Van Gogh

The Starry Night | Vincent Van Gogh | 1889

The Starry Night | Vincent Van Gogh | 1889

The myth of the tortured artist has been a common one through out the life of art history and art in popular culture. At some point in time, we decided to put artists with mental illnesses on a pedestal and not look deeper into the actual issues they struggled with. Today I would like to dive a little bit into the artist, Vincent Van Gogh, who has been deemed by our society as a “tortured artist” but was unfortunately actually in need of some serious help during his life time. This is the second entry in my Mental Health Awareness Month mini-series and if you have not already read my post on Yayoi Kusama, I would suggest you take a read. Also, I would like to mention that my friend, Steph, has also posted for this mini-series on her blog and you should definitely check it out. The post she has written talks about the signs that may indicate that you are ignoring your mental health.

One of the most famous “tortured artists” is Vincent Van Gogh. He is known for dealing with mental illness his whole life and having that interfere with his career. He was known for not being able to sell his now famous work barely at all during his life time even though he spent hours on end dedicated to making his artwork. The thing is, he had the resources to sell his artwork being that his brother, Theo Van Gogh was an art dealer and helped fund Vincent’s art career and just his living situation in general. While his brother was successful at art dealing in France, he could not help his brother when it came to being flawed at networking and gaining a following of his own.

Olive Trees | Vincent Van Gogh | 1889

Olive Trees | Vincent Van Gogh | 1889

Vincent Van Gogh was faced with mental illness all of his life that caused him to have impaired social skills when it came to interacting with other people and especially people that could have catapulted him to success.  People were often uncomfortable around him and found him rather hostile.  Since Van Gogh felt like an outsider in a big city such as Paris, he moved himself to the smaller French town of Arles.  By moving himself to Arles, he forced himself into isolation.  Isolation was a big part of why Van Gogh did not find success in his life.  With being isolated, he was unable to flourish among other artists.  Unfortunately, when he did try to create relationships with artists such as Paul Gaugin, he was unable to keep them because Gaugin felt uneasy and saw their friendship as toxic.  When Gaugin broke off their friendship, Van Gogh spiraled out of control because of how much he cherished that relationship.  This fall out was the cause of his infamous cutting of his own ear, which he had attempted to mail to Gaugin as a “friendly gesture”.  There are many art jokes that have been made about Van Gogh cutting off his ear, but what we should see is that this was a call for help.

Vincent Van Gogh was indeed a pivotal member of the post-impressionist movement when we review art history today.  His fluid brushstrokes broke away from the typical more realistic pieces that had emerged by artists like Edgar Degas during the impressionist art movement.  His lack of resources to deal with his own mental illness caused himself to steer away from success.  While it is often recorded that people did not like Van Gogh’s work, I am not completely swayed.  I think it was that people did not understand Van Gogh as an individual and did not want to associate themselves with someone who was unlike everyone else. 

At Eternity’s Gate with Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh

At Eternity’s Gate with Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh

A few months ago, I finally watched the film At Eternity’s Gate, which follows Van Gogh in some of the more pivotal moments of his life and known art career.  While we do not know as much about his life as some other more critically acclaimed artists, I do believe the film did a great job with the information that we do have about him. The filmography of the movie helps show its audience how Van Gogh viewed the world around him in a brilliant way. If you are interested in seeing an interpretation of how Van Gogh coped with his mental illness and worked through it by producing art, I would suggest watching this film. There are also many books out there that touch on this subject and I hope to cover a book review in some future posts.


Van Gogh’s mental illness has been so greatly romanticized because of how vividly he expressed emotion within his artwork. It is often thought that his mental illness caused him to become the great artist that he was and that without it, he may not have produced the same aesthetic style of art. While this may or may not be true, it is important that we know that he may have been more successful and more fulfilled in his life if he had better aid for battling his mental illness. The best thing that may have happened for him, was entering himself into a mental hospital. While he was there, he was able to paint more than he ever had before and was also given food and shelter while before he was living in great poverty. Since we have never had the opportunity to ask him these questions, who’s to say what was best for him, but Van Gogh being a “tortured artist” is not the way that we should remember him.

If you yourself, or someone you love, needs help with coping with mental illness, don’t be afraid to reach out to a professional. Sometimes we need that extra help from someone that knows more than ourselves. Below I have listed a few resources for dealing with mental illness.

Online Therapy with www.BetterHelp.com

Information on Different Mental Health Disorders with www.MentalHelp.net

Suicide Prevention Helpline 1-800-273-8255

Of course there are so many more resources that you can access, but these will at least give you a jumping off point.

What are your own views on the work and life of Vincent Van Gogh? What is your opinion of mental illness being romanticized in art?