Creativity & Mental Health – 5 Artists Who Lived With Mental Illness

“We of the craft are all crazy. Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched”

Lord Byron

It would be difficult to imagine a world without art. Just think about what our life would be like if we did not have all the beautiful buildings in our cities, if we could not enjoy our favorite songs or if we could not spend time reading books or visiting art galleries. It would be a sad world, would it not?

I have been addicted to art ever since I was a small child and I have always enjoyed spending hours looking at paintings or exploring the art nouveau architecture of my city. Looking at masterpieces will always make me think of the amazing people who were able to create them. Art makes our lives much more enjoyable but at the end of the day, a painting is more than just a pretty image: its the artists’ tool to express themselves and it is a window to their soul. Looking at a painting will help you see the world through the artist’s eyes and I think that is one of the coolest things in the universe. And obviously, it’s pretty much the same thing with any other form of art, just think about literature – a good novel will always help you escape your reality and will take you to someone else’s magical world.

I often hear people saying that most artists are mentally ill. But are artists more susceptible to mental health issues? It is difficult to give an answer to this question even though this subject has been studied by psychologists and other researchers for centuries. There are numerous studies stating that there may be a link between mental health issues and creativity. According to Shelley Carson, a lecturer at Harvard University, the most typical symptoms commonly found among artists are substance abuse, depression, bipolar disorder and suicide. She writes in a chapter of The Shared Vulnerability Model of Creativity and Psychopathology: In general, research indicates that creative people in arts-related professions endorse higher rates of positive schizotypy than non-arts professionals.” (Source)

Now, I am not a psychology researcher so I can not tell you whether Shelley Carson’s statement is right or wrong. There are researchers who say there’s surely a link between creativity and mental health disorders while others say there is not. If you ask my personal opinion, I would say there might be. But today’s article is not about trying to find out what the truth is or trying to convince you that my opinion is right.

Because at the end of the day, the most important thing is to accept other human beings the way they are and to raise awareness of mental health disorders (as many of you may know, I’ve been suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder for most of my life, so it’s an important thing for me!). So in this post, I will talk about great artists who have made the world a much more beautiful place by creating their masterpieces and whose art might have been inspired by their mental illnesses.

1. Edvard Munch – Depression, Alcoholism & Anxiety Disorders

“I was walking along the road with two of my friends. Then the sun set. The sky suddenly turned into blood, and I felt something akin to a touch of melancholy. I stood still, leaned against the railing, dead tired. Above the blue black fjord and the city hung clouds of dripping, rippling blood. My friends went on and again I stood, frightened with an open wound in my breast. A great scream pierced through nature.”

Edvard Munch – (1863 – 1944)

This was Edvard Munch’s description of the despair behind his most famous painting, The Scream. And I guess most of my readers know this painting as it is one of the world’s most iconic images. And well yes, that is also the profile picture on my blog so I do not think my little secret will surprise any of you: Edvard Munch is my favorite painter. An artist that I have always admired and I could always relate to.

Edvard Munch – The Angel Of Death

The Norwegian artist once wrote that sickness, madness, and death were the black angels that guarded his crib – his childhood was overshadowed by illness, the early loss of his mother and the dread of inheriting a mental condition that ran in his family. He suffered from depression and from anxiety disorder – well, that is an umbrella term, but I have not been able to find out what exact anxiety disorder he had, probably because a lot less was known about psychology in his time (or it was more difficult to get a diagnosis) but based on his quotes that I have read, I think he might have had panic disorder.

Munch went through many tragedies in his life and he suffered from severe mental health problems. The story of his life is heartbreaking but at the same time, I have always found it extremely inspiring. He is an artist who could beautifully express his feelings through his paintings and who used his dark experiences to create something magical.

Further reading
The long scream of Edvard Munch (Medium.com)

Vincent Van Gogh – Bipolar Disorder, Depression & Substance Abuse

“I am unable to describe exactly what is the matter with me. Now and then there are horrible fits of anxiety, apparently without cause, or otherwise a feeling of emptiness and fatigue in the head…At times I have attacks of melancholy and of atrocious remorse.”

Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890)

Vincent van Gogh – Starry Sky

Who does not know Vincent van Gogh? His sunflowers and starry nights. Or the story about his ear. The Dutch painter was plagued by psychiatric illnesses throughout his life. Evidence suggests that he had manic depression (currently known as bipolar disorder), a chronic mental illness that affects many creative people. (Source)

Furthermore, there are theories suggesting that his preference for certain colors – such as his famous yellow – was also influenced by some medical condition. But this is a question that we will probably never be able to answer as the artist did not get a proper diagnosis during his tragically short life – he committed suicide at the age of 37.

Why did he cut his ear? He cut off his left ear after having a fight with his friend, Paul Gauguin, a fellow painter with whom he had been working for a while in Arles. It was an act of unconsciousness as later he could not recall anything about the event.

Vincent vsn Gogh – Sunflowers

And one more thing about this topic that I feel I just have to tell you. I find it extremely tragic that the “ear story” is the first thing that a lot of people will think of when they hear van Gogh’s name. I know I may sound hypocritical as I have just shared this story but we have to bear in mind that my blog is about mental health issues so I think it’s safe place to talk about such topics. However, I really think that Vincent van Gogh should be remembered for the fabulous landscapes he had painted and for his beautiful colors that can make everyone of us happy. He never received recognition in his lifetime and he committed suicide at a young age because he thought he’d been a complete failure. I do believe there’s life after death and I hope that somewhere, this amazing artist knows how much the world adores his work.

Further reading:
– Creativity and Chronic Disease – Vincent van Gogh (Paul Wolf)

Paul Gauguin – Depression, Anxiety Disorder & Substance Abuse

“Civilization is what makes you sick.”

Paul Gauguin (1848 – 1903)

Civilization is what makes you sick – I just love this quote from Paul Gauguin and while I have always been a “big city boy”, I can totally relate to him. The French artist tried to run away from himself and try to find peace at the other side of the world, but he had to realize that his problems would follow him everywhere. And I think this is something that a lot of us have experienced. But in Gauguin’s case, his “escape” to Tahiti resulted in amazing works of art.

Paul Gauguin – Parau api

For Gauguin, painting was a way of coping with his anxiety attacks and depression. And his art did not only help him deal with his mental problems but enjoying them helps all of us escape from our daily reality and see the world through different lenses. I have always loved the exotic atmosphere of his colorful paintings – there’s just something magical about them.

Paul Gauguin – Mahana no atua (Day of the God)

Paul Gauguin went through a lot of suffering and he spent the last of his days in prison for political activism (he took the side of the islanders against the French colonialists). Weakened by excessive drinking, improper nourishment, and an overdose of morphine to treat the syphilis, Gauguin died of a heart attack at 54 years old.

Further reading:
The Narcissist Who Painted Himself As A Yellow Christ (I do not particularly agree with this article but I do think reading about different points of view is important, that’s why I’m sharing it πŸ™‚ )

Richard Dadd – Paranoid Schizophrenia

“Go and tell the great God Osiris that I have done the deed which is to set him free.”

Richard Dadd (1817 – 1886)

Note: Reading about Richard Dadd’s life can be an OCD trigger.

Richard Dadd’s first psychotic episode came whilst on a boat on the river Nile, where he thrashed around wildly and believed himself to have been taken mentally hostage by the ancient Egyptian God Osiris. Upon returning home to England, he began to believe that his father was the Devil, resulting him stabbing his parent to death, feeling to France and attempting to kill a tourist. He was committed to a psychiatric hospital (the famous “Bedlam”) where he created many of his famous masterpieces.

Looking at Richard Dadd’s paintings, it’s hard to believe that the artist actually painted them while spending over 20 years at a mental hospital. Paul Gauguin tried to escape from his problems and moved to another continent, while Richard Dadd did not have such an option – so instead, he escaped to a fantastic world of fairies.

Further reading:
Richard Dadd: madness and beauty (The Telegraph)

Louis Wain – Schizophrenia

“Intelligence in the cat is underrated.”

Louis Wain (1860 – 1939)

I have always loved cats – I think they are absolutely amazing so I guess it does not come as a surprise that I love Louis Wain’s cat paintings.

Louis Wain – Ginger Cat

The artist married at a young age, but his wife was struck down by a fatal illness. Peter, the black-and-white cat that the couple got as a wedding gift would usually sit on the ill wife’s bed and Louis would sketch and caricature the cat to amuse his love. – I have always found this story beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time.

After his wife’s death, Louis Wain found himself experiencing the growing symptoms of schizophrenia and used his art as a way of expression (just like the other artists in this list.) So that is how his beautiful cat paintings came into life. For me, the most amazing thing about Louis Wain’s art is that despite the fact that he painted millions of cats, every single work of art he created has it’s own atmosphere and even it’s particular style.

Further reading:
Louis Wain’s Schizophrenic Cats (Schizlife.com)

People who have made the world more beautiful

The stories of these artists may be sad, but their artwork has brought joy to many of us over the years. It is not easy to live with a mental disorder but art is a great way of coping with your problems. And it’s not only about dealing with your own issues but also helping others. The artists in this list would have never thought that one day, their paintings will help millions of people and that they will be an inspiration to all of us.

Your thoughts

As you know, there’s one thing that I enjoy more than writing my stories: reading yours. So please share your thoughts in the comment section πŸ™‚

Further Reading

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