Vincent van Gogh: Portrait of a Troubled Artist

Derek Sincavage By Derek Sincavage, 15th Jul 2011 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
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A Look Inside the Mind of One of History’s Greatest Painters.

Vincent van Gogh: Portrait of a Troubled Artist

Born in Holland in 1853, Vincent Willem van Gogh was a post-Impressionist painter who is widely regarded as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. Prior to his artistic career, Vincent aspired to be a preacher, like his father, and throughout his life became an evangelist to the poor. Much of his early artistic works, such as The Potato Eaters, were inspired by his time living among the modest working-class. Van Gogh began his painting career in his late twenties, and in less than a decade he produced more than 2,000 works of art, including 900 paintings and over 1,000 drawings and sketches. His work, recognizable for its vivid colors and short brushstrokes, included landscapes, portraits, self-portraits, and paintings of cypresses, wheat fields and, most notably, sunflowers. Van Gogh's most renowned painting, The Starry Night, is currently in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and is one of the most recognizable and reproduced paintings of all time.

Highly emotional and lacking self-confidence, Vincent suffered from severe anxiety and increasingly frequent bouts of mental illness throughout most of his life. He often complained of spells of confusion and occasional states of stupor, accompanied by hallucinations, a feeling of empty-headedness, and sleepwalking. Vincent also became very paranoid at times, convinced he was being followed by angry mobs or police, and was afraid of being poisoned. Though little was known about mental illness during Vincent's time, his symptoms today would indicate that he suffered from manic depression, or bipolar syndrome.

On May 8, 1889, Vincent committed himself to the asylum at Saint Paul, located near the Saint-Remy provence in southern France. During his stay at the asylum, van Gogh painted close to 150 canvases over the course of a year. The Starry Night depicts the view outside his asylum room window, overlooking the village of Saint-Remy under a swirling night sky. Van Gogh painted this scene entirely from memory during the daytime. The newly acquired stability of asylum life seemed beneficial to Vincent, as he had stated: "I feel happier here with my work than I could be outside. By staying here a good long time, I shall have learned regular habits and in the long run the result will be more order in my life." However, the happiness and order was short-lived, and Vincent's illness worsened by early 1890.

There has been much speculation regarding the extent to which Vincent's emotional distress influenced his works of art. There is a widespread tendency among many critics to romanticize Vincent's mental illness, including one incident in December 1888 in which he used a razor blade to cut off a portion of his own ear. Many modern critics, however, view Vincent as an artist who was deeply troubled and frustrated by the incoherence brought about by his illness. As his health deteriorated, Vincent found himself unwilling or unable to paint, which deepened his frustration and complicated his emotional fragility. He had written a letter to his brother Theo, dated July 25, 1890, though Theo found the letter to be incomprehensible. Only two days later, on July 27, 1890, troubled by his mental illness, fractured relationships, and lack of artistic direction, Vincent walked into a wheat field where he had been painting and shot himself in the chest with a revolver. Vincent died of his wounds on July 29, 1890, largely unknown, at the age of 37. Theo van Gogh, at his brother's side during the time of his death, later reported Vincent's last words: “The sadness will last forever.”

Vincent produced all of his work over a span of only ten years. Several of his paintings rank among the most expensive in the world, selling for an estimated $670 million. Though his influence on the art world would prove enormous after his death, during his short and troubled career, Vincent van Gogh sold only one of his paintings.


Anxiety, Art, Artists, Bipolar Disorder, Depression, Paint, Painters, Post-Impressionism, Starry Night, Theo Van Gogh, Vincent Van Gogh

Meet the author

author avatar Derek Sincavage
A former office temp, overnight warehouse worker, morning radio show co-host, and pharmacy technician, I now spend most of my free time as a freelance writer. I attended university, majoring in film and media production, with an added interest in scr...(more)

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