Vincent van Gogh is undoubtedly one of the most popular names in art. The 19th-century Dutch painter captivates with his unique painting styles, creating art through post-impressionism, neo-impressionism, pointillism, and the more distinct impasto style.
He’s regarded as a “mad genius”, and you need insane talent to create captivating pieces of art that sell for millions of dollars. However, his description as “mad” doesn’t just define his talent alone.
Vincent van Gogh is also known for his mental illness, and it is argued that this contributed largely to the creation of his most magnificent art pieces. Keep on reading as we dive into Van Gogh’s eccentric lifestyle and show you just how unconventional his path to success is.
Vincent Van Gogh’s Eccentric Early Life
Van Gogh differs from many classic and contemporary artists who attended schools to perfect their creative talent. A boy who had been impulsive, undirected, and anti-social, he left his study of theology at age 15 and soon began work as an art dealer. Without any intention of being a professional painter himself, this was an occupation he kept for seven years till his first depressive episode at the age of 22.
His depressive episode, caused by rejection from the daughter of his landlady in Brixton, London, was a primary turning point. It represented the start of a turbulent part of his life, a struggle that led him to religion.
By 25 years old, he resumed his path in theology, preaching to a group of miners at Borinage, a Southwestern area in Belgium. He gave away his possessions, wandered about the streets, and even slept on the floor at the coal mine, which are early indications of his eccentrics.
At age 27, the seeds sowed during his time as an art dealer germinated in his heart. He decided to dabble in the world of painting after much urging from his brother, Theo, and alongside this came his most difficult mental battles.
The “Mad” Genius Behind Van Gogh Paintings
As unexpected as it may sound, Van Gogh didn’t see any form of success as an artist. Instead, he continued to live in poverty during his lifetime and ultimately committed suicide at the age of 37. The decade leading to his suicide progressively saw the worst of Van Gogh’s mental illness and the best of his artistic creations.
During his time as a deeply-troubled artist, Van Gogh created 2,100 artworks, 860 of which were oil paintings. However, most of Van Gogh’s drawings were created during the final two years of his life, during which he had extended stays in mental asylums. This peculiarity shows just how much contribution his poor mental state had.
Mental Breakdowns and Famous Artworks
When you look at the famous Vincent van Gogh paintings list, you will surely come across several names of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings. These include The Starry Nights, Vase With Sunflowers, Wheatfields, Irises, Portrait of Paul Gachet, and Tree Roots. These Vincent van Gogh drawings give us significant insight into how his mental illness shaped his work.
Vase With Sunflowers
Vase with Sunflowers is a Van Gogh drawing created in 1888 and is one of the most expensive Van Gogh pieces ever sold ($40 million in 1987). The year 1888 is important in Van Gogh’s mental progression as it saw an infamous mental episode during which he cut off a piece of his earlobe. This came during an argument in December 1888 with fellow painter Paul Gauguin, whom he lived with in Arles, France.
Van Gogh created “Vase with Sunflowers”, among other intensely colorful yellow paintings, during this period of great mental turbulence. His episode of self-mutilation resulted in his admission to the asylum, Saint-Paul-De-Mausole, where he stayed for a year. We see that, for Van Gogh, creating art at this point becomes a path to escape his mental challenges.
The Starry Night, Wheatfield’s, and Irises Series
A piece often found at the top of the famous Van Gogh paintings list, The Starry Night embodies symptoms of Van Gogh’s mental health. To begin with, this piece was created in the mental asylum at Saint-Remy, into which he voluntarily admitted himself.
In the painting, we see a large cypress tree, a whirling sky, sparkling stars, and a crescent moon. The cypress tree symbolizes the graveyard, representing death and mourning, while the sparkling stars and glowing moon represent dreams of hope. The whirling sky surrounds these symbolic pieces, representing turmoil or, as critics will put it, the unsettled state of his mental health.
Wheat Field with Cypresses, 1889. Oil on Canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art
We also saw Van Gogh create the Wheatfield and Irises series of paintings in 1889. Alongside The Starry Night, these were among 142 pieces created by Van Gogh while he was recovering in the asylum.
The Portrait of Dr. Paul Gachet, Tree Roots
Van Gogh committed suicide in 1890, but this year, he created two of his most iconic paintings. The Portrait of Dr. Paul Gachet is Van Gogh’s most expensive artwork ($83 million in 1990, adjusted to $180 million with inflation today), while “Tree Roots” is deemed the last piece on which he was working when he shot himself.
The composing elements of “Tree Roots” makes it appear almost abstract with no point of focus. Gnarled tree roots had been described by Van Gogh in a letter to Theo, his brother, as representing life’s struggles. This was the final piece he worked on the morning his mental struggles pushed him to suicide.
We see that the most revered Van Gogh paintings emerged from some of the worst periods of the famous artist’s life. They came from the year he cut off a part of his earlobe, the year he stayed in an asylum, and the day he committed to taking his own life. However, these periods of insanity contributed to Van Gogh’s uniqueness as an artist as they gave more depth to his talent and bred more fascination with his life and painting styles.