Bright Lights and Dark Corners: A Genius

When I saw a quote from Melissa McQuillan’s book Van Gogh on Wikipedia in reference to Vincent van Gogh, I knew I had to write an article for this series about him because his life, his story, and his art are the pinnacles of what this series is about: the intersection between creativity and the neurodivergent. If some scholars believe his life was the very essence of this type of conversation, then it would be foolish to overlook his contribution to art and the role of mental health in creativity and in the case of van Gogh, genius.

The whole quote on Wikipedia so you can see it in context is: “Considered a madman and a failure in his lifetime, van Gogh exists in the public imagination as the quintessential misunderstood genius, the artist “where discourses on madness and creativity converge.[5] He attained widespread critical, commercial, and popular success over the ensuing decades, and is remembered as an important but tragic painter, whose troubled personality typifies the romantic ideal of the tortured artist.”

I hate to admit that in the past, I romanticized, misunderstood, and focused on van Gogh’s mental state more than his art. Before I could identify even one of his paintings I knew that he had cut off his ear (and I mistakenly thought he had sent it through the mail to a male lover — not sure where that part of the story came from). As an important side note, it is unclear to this day if Vincent cut his ear or if while arguing with the famous painter, Paul Gauguin, that Gauguin sliced Vincent’s ear. We will never know for sure, and that ties into the problem of trying to diagnosis or dig into someone’s mental health (and physical health) after they are gone.

Vincent van Gogh: Self Portrait 1887

I have spent the last month trying to get to know Vincent van Gogh. I have watched documentaries and read books. I believe that somewhere in all the books and movies that are available that there are pieces and bits of van Gogh that show us the complexity of his life and not just sensational details.

Van Gogh has been labeled bipolar, epileptic, schizophrenic, and he was given the diagnosis in the book Starry Starry Night Life and Psychiatric History of Vincent van Gogh as someone with borderline personality disorder. There are many other speculative diagnoses: a visual impairment that caused him to see halos and yellow tints, syphilis, gonorrhea, as well as alcohol poisoning and sun stroke.

In the book The Letters of Vincent van Gogh I read letters that Vincent van Gogh sent to his brother Theo. None of the letters I read sounded like a man that would be easy to diagnose posthumously. He does describe some troubling thoughts, but he is clear and articulate in his writing. As someone who has been under constant treatment by psychiatrists for twenty years before I received an accurate diagnosis, I know first-hand that diagnosing a mental illness (even one hundred years after the death of van Gogh) is still not an exact science.

When I write about most artists, I like to use the words that they use to identify their illness. I wonder how van Gogh would have described his mental health? He did voluntarily go to live at Saint-Remy de Provence (an asylum) from May 1889- May 1890 after the incident where he (not known for certain) cut his earlobe off. There is little doubt that van Gogh knew he needed treatment and was willing to seek that treatment out. The last part of his life was spent under the care of Paul-Ferdinand Gachet. Gachet was known for treating artists for both physical and mental health.

Inarguably and indisputably van Gogh was prolific in self-expression in a way few people ever are. He wrote over a thousand letters and produced 900 paintings and 1100 sketches and drawings. It is easy to say that van Gogh was more interested in and spent more time painting than he did anything else even to the detriment of his health.

Letter from Vincent to Theo

In his letters to Theo, Vincent writes about painters whose work he loves, and while crossing France in a slow moving train, he writes about all the colors he sees in the landscape out the window. Van Gogh saw the world intensely and painted it with enthusiasm and single-mindedness. He was a genius who we seek to label in other ways. No other label matters nor can we be certain of one at this late date. Genius is the label most widely accepted and noted. Let us treat his health, both mental and physical as he did, as less than his work — secondary or not as important. Genius, let us leave him there.