Vincent Van Gogh was one of the most influential painters of the 19th century, but his life was plagued by a variety of illnesses both physical and mental. Van Gogh was never diagnosed during his lifetime, so it is impossible to say with any certainty what, if any, mental health issues he really had. However, many scholars who have reviewed his biography and letters believe that there is a strong case to be made for a bipolar Vincent Van Gogh.
What Manic Episodes Did Van Gogh Exhibit?
Throughout his 20s, Van Gogh attempted to embark on several very disparate career paths, starting each one with an extremely high level of energy and enthusiasm. Though he had sketched casually for most of his life, it was not until he was in his late 20s that Van Gogh decided to learn to paint. Though he made several attempts to attend art school, Van Gogh mostly taught himself through continual, exhaustive practice, copying the work of artists he admired.
What Depressive Episodes Did Van Gogh Exhibit?
A period of severe depression and self-doubt inevitably followed each attempt Van Gogh made to start something new. Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theodore document well some of these periods. Beginning in 1890, however, Van Gogh’s writings tapered off, as he was reportedly too depressed to keep up with them. This episode culminated with Van Gogh’s apparent suicide in July 1890.
What Other Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder Did Van Gogh Exhibit?
Van Gogh was a heavy drinker and smoker, and he was given to fasting and otherwise eating poorly. All of these traits are relatively common for people with bipolar disorder who experience manic episodes, and many believe that they exacerbated Van Gogh’s pre-existing conditions. During his depressive episodes, Van Gogh was prone to hallucinations, a symptom of bipolar disorder that is less common but not unheard of.
Did Mental Illness Make Van Gogh a Better Artist?
While Van Gogh’s manic episodes probably contributed to his sudden and intense devotion to learning how to paint, the depressive episodes that followed undoubtedly led to his suicide. Mental illness did not give Van Gogh a passion for art or a creative spirit, but it did make him a sad and unwell person. If he was bipolar, Vincent Van Gogh succeeded in spite of his illness not because of it.
There are several other theories related to Vincent Van Gogh’s health. Some scholars think he suffered from epilepsy and that seizures triggered the changes in his mood. Lead poisoning as a result of accidentally ingesting paints is another theory.