Famous artists who suffered from mental illness (Psychology meets Art 1)

This is the first installment of my ‘Psychology meets Art’ feature in which I expore the relationship between these two domains. This post includes a list of famous artists who are to said to have suffered from mental illness and an explanation of how I think this has influenced their work.

  1. Vincent Van Gogh

Van Gogh suffered from epileptic seizures as a result of the amount of absinthe he drank. Art historians have studied his personal letters and noted that experienced very depressive states, which were followed by manic episodes where he showed extreme passion and determination towards his work. Could it be that he had bi-polar disorder? Some say he may have had schizophrenia. Many have tried to diagnose him but the answer is not known. Many of his late paintings show an optimism to return to good mental health. However, the painting below; ‘Wheat field with crows’- (1890) that depicted wheat fields under troubled skies reflects his melancholy feelings of extreme loneliness. The dark sky seems to represent a feeling of overshadowing doom. It was in fact in a wheat field like this that on the 27th July 1890 Vincent Van Gogh shot himself in the chest with a revolver.

2. Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni

Michelangelo suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. He would isolate himself and work on his arts for very long periods of time. He refused to ever take off his boots. He also had a very short temper and would suffer from angry outbursts towards those who offended his beliefs.

3. Georgia O’Keeffe

Reportedly had clinical depression.

4. Pablo Picasso

Was also said to have had clinical depression.

5. Jackson Pollock

American abstract artist Jackson Pollock dealt with clinical depression. He experienced a nervous breakdown in 1938 and resorted to alcohol and substance abuse in order to cope with his debilitating self-doubt and a marriage in turmoil.

6. Francisco de Goya y Lucientes

His paintings reflected his depression with themes such as absurdity, meaninglessness, physical torment and death.

7. Edvard Munch

Many of Edvard Munch’s works depicted his depressive states. His period of paintings that showed dominant women devouring weak men like vampires were as a result of his obsession with his first love.

In the early 1900’s he became an alcoholic until, in 1908, he collapsed. As he was hearing hallucinatory voices and suffering paralysis on his left side, he was persuaded to check into a private sanitarium where he reduced alcohol intake and improved his mental state.

Self-portrait Between the Clock and the Bed (1940-42) his last self portrait before he died represented the fact that he had ‘hung back from the dance of life’. He is stood rigidly and awkward as if to apologise for using space next to his paintings that he referred to as his ‘children’ as he devoted his life to them, even through bouts of depression.

The list of not just artists but creative people in general, whose lives have been affected severely by their own ill mental health, is endless. Some seek refuge from reality in their creative works and others become ill because of their obsession with their art. It is said that mental health disorders such as bi-polar are associated with manic episodes of great creativity, followed by extreme emotional low points. There is no doubt that mental states, be it highs or lows, have inspired some of the greatest artwork in history.

What are your thoughts?

Edvard Munch's Madonna

Edvard Munch's Madonna (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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21 responses to “Famous artists who suffered from mental illness (Psychology meets Art 1)”

  1. tellingfibulas says :

    Fascinating use of pyschohistory (not Asimov’s version obviously) looking forward to the next part!

  2. The Mind of Maze says :

    I thought research suggested Michelangelo had an ASD which incorporated the symptoms similar to OCD?
    Interesting post 🙂 I’m only just about to start on my Psych course but hope to find the time to read as much as possible on non course material.

    • psychundergrad says :

      Several sources told me that but you’re probably right! Sorry! Thank you 🙂 I’m sure you will, hope you enjoy your course 🙂

      • Betsy Wetzig says :

        Hi…. from Betsy Wetzig. Often there are indications of mental difficulties in the brush stroke of the artists. More research is needed in this area, but for Van Gogh his brush Stroke shows two “Home’ neuromuscular tension patterns as equal, which according to paper by Sally Fit ( in graduate school, UCLA) is the indicator of Schizophrenia. It makes sense because the “home” pattern is the pattern of deepest relaxation, awareness, alpha brain wave and creativity. To have two home patterns would mean a “double self”. (Work of Valerie Hunt, UCLA and Josephine Rathbone, Columbia University. These Patterns are the bases of my work on Coordination Patterns and their Psyche-Soma Dynamics and you can definitely tell the style of a painting by the movement Patterns required to make the brush stroke. Everyone”s Home Pattern is the dominant Pattern of their creativity. Thus for instance Picasso’s brush stroke always was Thrust dominant (like Martha Grahams dance style and Karate), but his early work was Hang-Thrust, Three Musicians style was Shape-Thrust and Gurnica was Swing-Thrust .

  3. Emily from wild & grace says :

    Have you read Joseph Campbell’s ‘Myths to live by’? There is an extraordinary article about the parallels between schizophrenia and a heroes journey. I have a question for you, do you know of any ‘therapist’ or ‘centre’ or ‘scientist’ that approaches mental wellness from an alternative perspective, than medication – I’m on the look out to read of this person and their findings/thinkings (assuming they exist).

  4. Axie says :

    What evidence do you have Picasso was “said to have had clinical depression.”??

    I am looking into this matter for an article. Please elaborate.

  5. emma says :

    This was very helpful for my paper

  6. Morgan says :

    Huh. Let’s not forget Richard Dadd, who killed his father because he thought that he was the Devil under disguise. More than likely suffered from paranoid schizophrenia.

  7. Paul howard says :

    I suffer from mental illness and my art is my release. The thought of not having that would be horrible. Things would be so much worse. It’s something I can say I am and one of the only things i think I’m good at. Very rewarding with a sense of pride.

  8. Gina says :

    I am an artist with mental illness. I love reading about genuis painters and their struggles.

  9. Delilah Davis says :

    This helped soooo much for a research project I’m working on. I’ll be sure to credit you!!

  10. mahasandhi108 says :

    Yes…what would we do without these creative people that are considered mentally ill ?

    Some have made great contributions to society.

    I hope you are enjoying your career.. I know this blog has not been active in a few years ..

    I enjoyed reading this
    Thank you.

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