Famed painter Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) is best known for paintings like “Starry Night,” his series of sunflowers and water lilies, and perhaps infamously, cutting off his own ear, but many people might not know that he also lived with mental illness.
Born in the Netherlands, Van Gogh moved to Paris, in 1886. He was rumored to have a “nervous and difficult” personality, rife with bursts of creativity and bouts of deep despair. It is said Van Gogh lived with major depression, though over the decades more than 150 psychiatrists have tried to diagnose Van Gogh, leading to more than 30 different diagnoses, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, among others. He also struggled with alcoholism and was addicted to absinthe. After a psychotic episode in 1888, where he pulled a knife on a friend then cut off his own ear, Van Gogh was hospitalized and then voluntarily checked himself into a mental institution in Saint-Remy, France, for a year. During that year, Van Gogh created some of his best work, including “Starry Night.”
In 1890, Van Gogh moved to Auvers-sur-Oise, a commune outside of Paris, which was 19th-century home to many artists such as Paul Cézanne and Camille Pissarro. From February to April of that year, Van Gogh suffered a deep depressive episode, which rendered him unable to write or paint. In May, he experienced another psychotic episode characterized by “fits of despair and hallucination during which he could not work, and in between them, long clear months in which he could and did, punctuated by extreme visionary ecstasy," according to art critic Robert Hughes in his book, “Nothing If Not Critical.”
Van Gogh took his own life in July of 1890; a shot to his chest resulted in his death 29 hours later. His last words to his brother were “the sadness will last forever,” but what has stayed with us forever from Vincent himself are his beautiful works of art.
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