In honor of Bipolar Awareness Day, I thought I’d write about one of the most tragic and truly brilliant painters of the 19th Century. Vincent van Gogh was thought to have struggled with Bipolar Disorder in his time, leading to his suicide in 1890, just shortly after his 37th birthday. Everyone who has studied art history, or taken an art class sometime in their life, or watched the Doctor Who episode, knows that van Gogh’s works were not appreciated in his time. However, time made fools of them all and now the post-impressionism painter is one of the most widely celebrated artists of the world. van Gogh’s paintings in the post-impressionism movement used color and vibrant swirling brush strokes to convey his feelings and state of mind. He deliberately used colors to capture mood, rather than using colors realistically. Starry Night being one of those best examples and most widely known paintings. Vincent van Gogh is often characterized by being a troubled and suffering artist. While yes, this is true, he was also a hardworking and deeply religious man.
Wheatfield with Crows
Auvers-sur-Oise, July 1890
oil on canvas, 50.5cm x 103cm
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
The above picture is one of my favourites that this master ever produced and is rumored to be one, or the last, painting he ever did before committing suicide.
….and yes, this the work that is shown at the beginning of that Doctor Who episode.
Head of a Skeleton with a Burning Cigarette
Antwerp, January-February 1886
oil on canvas, 32.3cm x 24.8cm
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
This is another favourite of mine and a planned tattoo for the future. The bleak and contrasting colors, along with the image of a dead figure smoking just stand out to me. To what I see, the skeleton is all of humanity and the cigarette reflects an addiction no matter if it kills you or not.
It is also the cover of David Sedaris’s novel, When You Are Engulfed in Flames.
These two paintings, my favorites aside, show the contrast of the artist. Wheatfield and Skeleton show the light and darkness of his art and his mind.
Historians debate about the posthumous diagnosis of van Gogh having Bipolar Disorder, but letters to his brother, Theo, and due to Van Gogh’s extreme enthusiasm and dedication to first religion and then art coupled with the feverish pace of his art production many believe that mania was a prominent condition in Van Gogh’s life. However, these episodes were always followed by exhaustion and depression and ultimately suicide. Therefore, a diagnosis of bipolar disorder or manic depression makes sense with the accounts of these episodes in Van Gogh’s life.
The impact that van Gogh and other artists, writers, actors, activists, and athletes have on the world runs deep. Though some are no longer with us because of BPD and other causes, they paved the way for others to come forward and not shy away for speaking about this mental illness. The only way to move into the future and accept that mental health is just as important as physical well-being is to get out and start talking about it. Share your story. Your voice and your art, whatever way you express it, has the right to be seen and heard.
Notable Names who also have BPD:
- Max Bemis
- Dick Cavett
- Carrie Fisher
- Zelda Fitzgerald
- Stephen Fry
- Mel Gibson
- Ernest Hemingway
- Abbie Hoffman
- David LaChapelle
- Vivien Leigh
- Edvard Munch
- Metta World Peace
- Lou Reed
- Tim Smith
There are some helpful books and websites out there that can help with managing BPD as well as helping your partner, spouse, or family understand what you’re going through, including your triggers and ways to talk to you when you’re “having a moment”.
- International Bipolar Foundation is a great website that has webinars and offers a free book about Bipolar Disorder; a donation is appreciated. Also if you have a Girl Scout in your family, there is now a Mental Health Awareness patch!!
- Bipolar Disorder for Dummies may be a helpful book. I am ordering it for myself and James. The first edition was published in August 2005 and this new edition has updates on diagnosis, treatments, and the genetics of BPD. I can fill you in once I’ve given it a once over.
- Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder: Understanding and Helping Your Partner is a book that I am also ordering for James. He does a good job helping me through when times get rough but it never hurts to have some extra help. Again, I’ll do a full review once he has read all of it.
- Depression & Bipolar Support Alliance is also a helpful website that is based out of Chicago, IL, that offers support groups, links to Bipolar Magazine, and other great outlets to learn, manage, and educate others about mental health.