Vincent Van Gogh, and the Narrative of the Struggling Artist

Van Gogh is an icon, and in contemporary popular culture he seems to be more of a fictional character than a historical figure. Despite this, it matters that we remember he was a real living being; when we strip away his humanity we also strip it away from the 1 in 4 people who will suffer with mental health problems alive today, along with other disabled people and everyone else who finds themselves categorised as a ‘tortured artist’.

The brief overview of Van Gogh’s health diagnoses is as follows. Van Gogh and his doctor, Dr Felix Ray believed that he had epilepsy. In 1947, Perry suggested that Gogh had bipolar disorder with comorbid health problems. Multiple doctors believe he had Borderline Personality Disorder. Roch Grey believed he may have suffered with heat stroke. 1979 saw the first hypothesis that Gogh suffered with Ménière's disease, which was both strongly advocated and refuted by other academics. In 1991, a doctoral thesis suggested lead poisoning, but forensic investigation of Gogh’s bones that could prove this was not undertaken. Another controversial hypothesis is that he suffered with AIP, which would appear similar to lead poisoning. He both abused substances, and used treatments for epilepsy.

His death is widely accepted as suicide.

Today, not only do I want to explain that none of this is why he made great art, but I also want to explain what did cause him to create exceptional paintings, and what this means for disabled, chronically ill and other disadvantaged artists today.

Lets walk through the basics. An artist who finds themselves with such severe mental health problems that they end up in a psychiatric ward (an example would be… Van Gogh) will find their access to art materials severely limited. Not just due to the physical geography of being in hospital and having your belongings in a separate location, but the variable contraband and restricted lists that may have to account for even biros or a foil paint tube that can be used by someone determined enough to do damage. Over 28 days an artist will produce a lot less artwork if they are sectioned under the mental health act than if they had received appropriate care at an early stage and through that been given the opportunity to avoid becoming an inpatient.

In addition to this, in the lead up and aftermath of inpatient care the artist probably won’t be in the best mind to produce artwork. There is no inherent value that going through the struggle will offer the artist, for their career or their art. This is the same as it is for mentally ill people who want to be chefs, or air hostesses. To say that bad mental health produces good art is to violate the privacy of some of the most vulnerable people in society, unless you are talking about your own work.

Medication for mental and neurological heath treatment has strange side effects, and not only are the common experiences like headache and nausea distractions from anyone’s workflow, but other side effects, such as changes to eye cones, can absolutely flatten any project that required an ounce of visual consistency.


So then, on to the second question, why did Van Gogh produce so many amazing paintings? The answer’s going to disappoint you: steady income that wasn’t from a second job. It’s well documented that his brother gave him an allowance.

This is a good point to remember that we’d have a more of Picasso’s work had he not set fire to it to stay warm and alive when he was young. Consider Van Gogh doing the same if he had not had the monetary support. Which of his artworks would you chose to destroy?

People like disability and poverty when it’s packaged in a nice clean way – because that is ultimately when profit can be made from it. In Van Gogh’s case, his art is often used in contemporary culture to sanitise and ignore the realities of his mental and neurological health problems. Phrases such as “he took a bad thing and turned it into something happy” are typical of an arts industry that overall won’t acknowledge when disabled people are actively andsystematically placed at disadvantage.

As a 22 year old in the UK, I can give more examples of careers in the arts I’ve seen trashed because of other people’s bad attitudes towards their mental health than I can people who’ve made some sort of social profit off their experience of poverty and/or disability. The official conversation around mental health at the art college I attended was so enraging all I could do was grit my teeth and not make eye contact with people whenever it came up. The constant push and shove of people demanding the mentally ill “speak up” and people policing the tone of anyone who did is still so maddening to me it’s taken me months to write and edit this paragraph.

And the discussion about poverty was equally infuriating. One student who, like many others in 2015, couldn’t get a job over the holidays to save up for a college trip found academic staff really condescending about her lack of attendance but when I raised issues with workload when college campus was closed over Christmas I was told it was a “personal issue” and I shouldn’t have brought it up. Even if the other student had had a job over the holidays, she still would’ve been tripped up by the tutors later in the semester.

Through process of elimination we discovered the only students who would be tolerated were those rich enough to support themselves through the holidays and still be able to afford to go on these trips during term time.

In the end, the class I graduated my BA with was a lot wealthier than the class I started first year with.  Three years of people leaving the course or failing and moving back a year had moved me from a class I felt comfortable in to one where I felt completely alienated and snubbed for being a problem student. 

My brief attempt to point this out through official feedback channels in my second year resulted in me getting a wave of hostility from tutors and other students on my course, and that was nothing in comparison with what I saw other students go through. No one wants to admit they got where they were based on privilege.  It was this attitude towards working class students that kept me silent about the systematic treatment of mental health issues.

The truth of the matter is, people want to romanticise illness, disability and poverty, because the reality makes them uncomfortable. No one wants to admit Van Gogh produced amazing work because his brother could afford to support him, and he would have been able to produce a lot more if he’d not had ultimately fatal mental and neurological health problems. Ultimately I have to admit to myself that a general public that barely wastes a passing thought for Picasso’s burnt works won’t ever think about artist upon artist whose work was destroyed by poverty in so much as it was never created to begin with.