How many times have you heard of someone being described as having an artistic personality or an artistic temperament? This is often spoken as a backhanded compliment, implying that although a person may be gifted, they are also somehow insane. The artist that most personifies the artistic personality is Vincent Van Gogh (1853 – 1890.)
But what just is the artistic personality? Psychologists describe it as having certain elements of having a contrary nature often at war with itself. For example, they are both introverted and extroverted; intelligent and yet naïve about practical manners like handling money; is both humble and yet extremely proud – even boastful – about their art. Van Gogh had all of these qualities.
Van Gogh’s Mental Illness
There have been many papers, books and magazine articles debating what mental illness Van Gogh had. Today’s diagnostic tools and awareness of the different types of mental illness was not available in Van Gogh’s time. Back then, mental illness was viewed as character flaws or offshoots from other illnesses such as syphilis. Van Gogh did suffer from syphilis, according to Van Gogh: The Life (Random House; 2011.) He also drank excessively.
Sadly, we do not know exactly what kind of mental illness Van Gogh suffered from. He was definitely mentally ill. His hundreds of surviving letters exhibit unfounded paranoia and grandiose schemes not based on reality. Surviving letters from Van Gogh’s family members and acquaintances often complain about how difficult and bizarre he was.
Studies on the Creative Brain
Recent studies have shown that many creative people are mentally ill. One 2010 study showed that dopamine is processed differently in the brains of creative people than non-creative people. This is because the brains of creative people have fewer dopamine receptors, which helps loosen up or eliminate social filters or that inner voice that says “you can’t do that.”
Although this lack of filtering is great for new and radical thinking, it doesn’t make you popular with the neighbors. Van Gogh tried getting art instructions at least twice in his life, but within a month or two had so incensed his teachers that he was kicked out. He also had furious arguments with fellow art students or customers who frequented the art supply shops that Van Gogh used.
Even if modern medicine and therapy had been available in Van Gogh’s day, he still would have been creative. Whether he would have produced the vast number of brilliantly intense works is a matter of debate. Unfortunately, the very qualities that make Van Gogh’s work so admirable made him a social outcast, a pauper dependent on his brother’s charity and in the eyes of many and absolute failure.