Van Gogh – Mental Illness and Genius

By Deena Sherman

Passionate works of art using vibrant colors, thickly applied paint and bold brushstrokes are only half the story of Vincent van Gogh. The other half is the tragedy of a man who often despaired, had a violent temper and mental illness and who eventually committed suicide.

The Dutch post-impressionist painter is a star in the world of modern art in spite of only living 37 years, from 1853 to 1890. Of those 37 years, Van Gogh only painted for the last 10, but during that time he painted intensely and prodigiously, producing 750 paintings and 1,600 drawings.

Van Gogh had previously been a salesman in an art gallery, a preacher to Belgium coalminers and a French tutor. The talent that lay within this great man emerged when he started painting the Belgium poor to whom he preached. As his talent became apparent, so tragically did his declining mental state. One wonders what sacrifices he made for his art and his unrecognized genius. For to be in a room with a Van Gogh work is an experience that cannot be imagined by observing a good reproduction, let alone the paintings on this page.

Van Gogh lived for a time in Paris with his younger brother, Théo, who was Vincent’s life-long supporter, both emotionally and financially. (The letters that Van Gogh later wrote to Théo are a window to the mind of this complicated man.) Théo was an art dealer and was familiar with up and coming themes and trends in the art world. While Van Gogh stayed with his brother in the early years of his painting days, he was exposed to and influenced by both impressionist artists as well as Japanese printmakers, adopting their bright colors and bold brushstrokes.

In 1888 Van Gogh left Paris for southern France, where he painted some of his most famous paintings of cornfields and poppies as well as the two paintings depicted here, The Bedroom and La Siesta.

Van Gogh persuaded Paul Gauguin to join him from Paris, but the friendship failed in arguments, some of them violent. Finally, after Van Gogh had threatened Gauguin with a razor, he famously (in an act of remorse) cut off part of his own ear.

Van Gogh continued to struggle with his mental illness, spending time in a hospital and an asylum. He would emerge often from his mania (he was possibly bi-polar) to paint wonderful works filled with a spirituality and joie de vive.

In 1890 shot himself and died two days later. Recognition, that perhaps may have saved Van Gogh, came later.

La Siesta
Hard physical labor earns shearers a well-deserved nap during the day. The hay, the sun, the sense of exhaustion in the subjects makes the viewer want to lie down next to them. Such a peaceful scene for an artist who would kill himself later in the year.

Van Gogh painted La Siesta while he was in a mental asylum. The idea for the painting was taken from the etching of one of Van Gogh’s favorite painters, Jean Francois Millet.

The painting has a series of pairs: the couple, the haystacks, the shoes and the sickles (which in particular reflect the closeness of the man and woman.) The sky is an even blue, symbolizing an untroubled, tension-free state of being.

The Bedroom

The Bedroom was painted in 1888 and is Van Gogh’s own bedroom in the “yellow house,” where he lived in Arles. The bed has great character, the floor is at an angle and there is no right angle in the room! The colors are typical of Van Gogh’s last few years of his life – full of vitality, with fresh blues and greens. Portraits of the poet Eugène Boch and the soldier Paul-Eugène Milliet, which Van Gogh drew, hang above the bed.