Vincent van Gogh has had a complicated childhood, and the hardships of his later life worsened his mental state. The problem of the connection between Van Gogh’s artistic talent and his mental illness is still unsolved. Likewise, it is unknown what the illness was: the most popular versions are depression and bipolar disorder.
Van Gogh lived and worked in a hard period, which included such events as the French Revolution in 1848, the American Civil War, and the Franco-Prussian war. The events in the world influenced the development of ideas, as well as the economic processes. During his early years, Van Gogh’s family lived in an outpost and suffered from economic hardship. “To survive the rigors of outpost life, Anna’s children [Vincent and his siblings] had to be as disciplined as frontier soldiers” (Smith & Naifeh, 2011, p. 31).
The first flare of his illness was connected with Paul Gaugin. Gaugin and Van Gogh were trying to create an artist union in Arles, but their views differed so much that it leads to a conflict, during which Van Gogh, as it is believed, tried to attack Gaugin with a razor. After Gaugin finally left, Van Gogh cut off a part of his ear. The next day he had to go to the mental hospital of Saint-Remy Van Gogh “saw himself as wrongly convicted, not ill” (Charles, 2014, p. 311).
At Saint-Remy, Van Gogh was extremely productive; it can be concluded that working on his paintings was bringing him relief. The problem of the connection between the painter’s mental state and his works is still a topic of continuous research. It is still arguable what kind of illness Van Gogh had. One of the versions is depression: it is known that masochism (cutting oneself) is a sign of depression (Eiss, 2010, p.13). The other widespread version is bipolar disorder, especially given the fact that Van Gogh committed suicide (Eiss, 2010, p. 263).
The famous “Sunflowers” (1889), one of Van Gogh’s sunflower series, was created after Gaugin took his leave. The painting is a perfect material to study Van Gogh’s mental condition of that period. Sunflowers were a special symbol for him; in Dutch literature, these flowers symbolize the love of God. “He consoled himself with the sight of sunflowers, which, in his view, symbolized gratefulness” (Wessels, 2013, p. 94). The color gamma used by Van Gogh in “Sunflowers” reveals the influence of Impressionism: he used contrasting colors, and he employed them to express his feelings rather than copy nature.
Calm, simple lines of the vase, and the petalless flowers are in contrast with the sharp lines of the petals, which makes a contradictory effect on a viewer’s perception. Van Gogh himself has mentioned that Gaugin liked sunflowers, so he was painting them while missing his friend, suffering from loneliness and isolation. Working on a painting provided him some relief, the one that therapy could provide.
It can be concluded that the events of Van Gogh’s childhood predisposed him to his disease, and the later failures worsened his condition. “Sunflowers” was created in one of the hardest periods of Van Gogh’s life. His artwork undoubtedly served as some therapy to him. It is still unknown what role the illness played in his success as a painter.
Charles, V. (2014). Vincent van Gogh by Vincent van Gogh. Ho Shi Minh City, Vietnam: Parkstone International.
Eiss, H. (2010). Christ of the coal yards: A critical biography of Vincent van Gogh. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Smith, G.W., & Naifeh, S. (2011). Van Gogh: The life. London, UK: Profile Books.
Wessels, A. (2013). Van Gogh and the art of living: The Gospel according to Vincent van Gogh. (H. Jansen, Trans.). Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers.