Vincent van Gogh’s last self-portrait is on exhibit at our local art museum until February. It is on loan from the National Gallery in Washington – swapped for Gaugin’s self-portrait in Gesthemane, which he painted shortly after his friend Vincent killed himself.
One of my editors invited me to write an article on van Gogh’s mental illnesses, which is like inviting me to shop at Nordstrom’s with your credit card. Of course I will write an article on van Gogh.
I love van Gogh – not just his paintings and drawings. I love his letters - hundreds and hundreds of letters in which he shares the minutia of his life – from impotence to absinthe. Gossip, advice, critique, paints, colors, hues, canvas, food, weather, God and his mental illness(es). Because the letters are dated it is possible to match a painting to a letter and hear van Gogh describe how he felt when he painted it – his state of mind and health. It as if van Gogh is the docent at his own exhibit.
I downloaded the color images of all 34 self-portraits. I went into a conference room and laid out the paintings in chronological order. You will never see these paintings laid out like this in a museum because van Gogh’s self-portraits are spread all over the globe. Five are in the United States. I have seen only two.
There, on the table, is the visual evidence of this man’s mental illness. It ebbed and flowed as he gazed into a mirror and painted himself (he could not afford models and self-portraits were all the rage among Dutch painters of the time) I cringe when I think about the pace of van Gogh’s work. It is raw, pure mania.
Over his brief, 10-year career he created over 2,100 paintings and drawings. Do the math: That is an average of 210 pieces a year – or one work of art every 42 hours. But van Gogh did not work at a steady pace. There were spells when his illnesses prevented his painting. At other times his illness left him unable to stop: “I have moments when I am twisted with enthusiasm or madness or prophecy, like a Greek oracle on his tripod.”
By contrast, Impressionist painter Paul Gaugin, a friend until van Gogh tried to kill him, produced 497 works during his 30-year career. Another contemporary, Paul Cezanne, created 488 works over 45 years.
Many forensic psychiatrists and psychologists have offered diagnoses: bipolar disorder, tempoaral lobe epilepsy, Meniere’s disease (a balance disorder), schizophrenia, depression, thujone poisoning (a toxin in absinthe) and lead poisoning – from nibbling on paint chips.
I have bipolar disorder II. I know the rush of mania – of feeling like a racehorse in the gate, pawing at the dust with wide eyes and nostrils flared. I know how it feels to not be able to stop – to keep going and going and going. I know depression – my black hole. But van Gogh knew these feelings with far more intensity. He had no mood stabilizers or antidepressants and so his illnesses had no boundaries.
But what I admire most about van Gogh is his appreciation and respect for his illness(es). He was keenly aware of his own “madness” and he wanted desperately to know more – why, when and what caused it. He knew its ferocious power and checked himself into a mental hospital when he felt himself losing control. Although he felt horribly guilty and embarrassed by the things he did when he was sick, he recognized that he was sick and needed help.
He had a disease. He had an explanation – not an excuse.
What comforts me a little is that I am beginning to consider madness as a disease like any other and accept the thing as such, whereas during the crises themselves I thought that everything I imagined was real.
Vincent van Gogh to his brother, Theo van Gogh
April 21 1889
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Last reviewed: 8 Sep 2010