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The Mental Health of Vincent Van Gogh

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Vincent Willem Van Gogh was one of the most influential post-impressionist artists of his time. He created a variety of painting in his life, mostly in his last years before he committed suicide following years of mental illness and ill health. From his early days he suffered from depression. After moving to London he became isolated and turned to painting as a way of pre-occupying himself. For most of his life he lived in poverty, smoking and drinking heavily. Despite all this, he persevered with his creative works, taking additional exams to better himself, although this may have caused him additional stress.

He was often caught up in altercations and confrontations due to his unconventional mannerisms and style. It is this turbulent life that led to one of many dramatic episodes – one of them being self mutilation. It is believed that Van Gogh started to hear voices and so he took a razor to stop the voices and cut off his ear. His state of mind was very disturbed t the time, he wrapped up his ear in paper and sent it to a prostitute that he had been visiting. It is believed that Van Gogh had had a psychotic episode, a complete mental breakdown and was diagnosed with having “acute mania and generalised delirium. “After some hospital treatment, Van Gogh ploughed on despite continuing to suffer from depression, hallucinations and delusions. Together with his work overload, poor nutrition, insomnia, he had many speculative diagnosis including bipolar disorder, acute intermittent porphyria, temporal lobe epilepsy. In spite of this this he continued to paint, his illness having a significant effect on his work, highlighting both his emotional expression and creative brilliance. Van Gogh produced many portraits in his time as an artist. A particular one of interested is a self portrait of him with a bandaged ear which he painted after his incident of self mutilation. The emphasis on the bandage highlights how significant this event was for him and painting this was a form of self expression. His facial expression is gloomy, his skin tone is yellowish green. It is picture is a mirror image of himself, as if he doubts himself. Vincent Van Gogh- Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1989)His portraits were ‘purposeful’ and ‘physiognomic’ mostly created during introspective, reflective periods often emphasising the high level of self assessment and scrutiny that he would put himself through. This is apparent in his gaze which is directed slightly away from the viewer. His appearance in this portrait is that of someone who is unstable and unkempt, unshaven, sunken eyes and jaw. He uses bold colours to express his mood, particularly yellows and greens which he emphasised symbolised ‘emotional truth. ’ He referred in his writings to his ‘anguished mood’ and ‘fatality of circumstances’.

Van Gogh was considered a tragic failure and madman throughout his life. On the 27th of July 1890 he shot himself in the chest with a revolver. His self mutilation and self portrait was indeed signs of serious self harm and suicidal tendencies. Indeed it took him 30 hours to die from his point blank gunshot would- a slow, painful self inflicted painful death. It is since his death that critic have tied to understand his psychological state and the impact this had on his work. His illness was seen as an impediment to his work, he was often disengaged for long periods and this hindered him from reaching the true heights of his potential. Yet many have suggested that it was his artwork that kept him sane and it was everything else that was disturbing to him. Vincent Van Gogh is recognised even to this day as a ‘misunderstood tortured genius. ’ Indeed both madness and creativity are reflected in his paintings and are a reflection of the turmoil that was going on inside his mind. Vincent’s last words were: “The sadness will last forever”. Psychiatrist to this day refer to the Van Gogh Syndrome- a mental illness linked to the self mutilation of the ear.

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