It is practically common knowledge that Vincent van Gogh was mentally unstable, especially during the last few years of his life: There was the incident with the ear, his voluntary admission in an asylum, and his suicide. These events are shaping his life-story, reconstructed from personal letters and reports from his doctors and witnesses. This text reflects on the representation of Van Gogh’s mental health. It aims to create awareness about the position of mental health in stories revolving around Vincent van Gogh. In doing so, it stresses that mental disorders are not universal concepts or biologically determined, but specified by culture, time and place.
The Last Years
From 1886 to 1888 Vincent van Gogh lived in Paris, to be absorbed in the local art community. After a life in the city he moved to Arles in the countryside where he would find inspiration in nature. From his letters it becomes clear that he had a turbulent personality and fluctuating moods. On 23 December 1888 he cut off his left ear after a fight with Paul Gauguin. He suffered from multiple personal crises, until he was voluntarily hospitalised in Saint-Rémy on 8 May 1889, where he stayed for over a year. When he was released he moved to Auvers-dur-Oise, where he would shot himself in the chest and pass away on 29 July 1890.
Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam
The upper floor of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam is mostly dedicated to 1889 and 1890, described as ‘Painting against All Odds’ and ‘Impassioned Nature’. These sections show works that Van Gogh made in the asylum and its garden. The museum uses Van Gogh’s letters to relatives and friends to tell his story. Unconsciously, this means his words are taken out of the original setting of a personal letter and put into a particular discursive narrative that emphasises how he suffered from his mental health.
As the heading ‘against all odds’ gives away, the general message that comes across is that Van Gogh worked on despite his illness. The first evident relation that is made between art and mental illness is that of productivity. As emphasised on the museum website: “Despite such relapses, however, Vincent was exceptionally productive at Saint-Rémy, where he completed around 150 paintings in the space of a year.”  As Michelle Jarman argues, this apparent causal relationship is problematic. She describes how the traditional medical model constitutes a division between being mentally ill and doomed to failure, or being well and destined for success. This model imposes a limited understanding of the self, directly putting great value on one’s abilities and achievements (Jarman, 2011, pp. 15-6).
In Van Gogh’s case, the dominant discourse is precisely this. The fact is, however, that there is no fixed relation between his mental health and productivity; this is a composed story in hindsight, with an illusionary coherence and causation. Nowadays, in our economically focused society, we would like to believe that there is a determined connection between one and the other. His personal distress was undoubtedly of influence on his work, but it is insufficient to discard his work and his mental state to ‘productivity’ or ‘achievements’.
The second message that the museum conveys regards the advantages of Van Gogh’s artistic practice in the asylum. The wall texts explain how painting gave structure to his daily life, as it was a way to pass the time and to cope with the situation. Or, in Van Gogh’s own words, “more than ever I have a pent-up fury for work, and I think that this will contribute to curing me.” Here glimmers through that he painted to feel better, or, rather, to forget about his sorrow. The next quote illustrates this even more: “it’s only in front of the easel that I feel a little of life.” The museum carefully puts these lines together, so that, again, the illusion of immanent causality and coherence is brought to the attention, in which the focus lies on ‘advantages’.
It has never become clear what Van Gogh was exactly diagnosed with, so he is easily being labelled as ‘insane’, ‘mad’, ‘unbalanced’, or just ‘ill’. Many experts have been trying to diagnose him in retrospect: “If we look at his life as a whole, we can certainly identify elements of borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, and – slightly less likely – epilepsy. Yet not to such an extent that would justify referring to an illness.”  If we believe his letters he indeed suffered from some symptoms that would nowadays qualify as such, like mood swings, insomnia, alcoholism, hallucinations, and anxiety, but it is impossible to establish the exact diagnosis. Not just because it happened two centuries ago and it would be impossible to pinpoint the facts, but also because the definition of mental disorders has developed. That is, we now have a different understanding of mental illnesses, which falls within a contemporary medical, economical, and social discourse that revolves around profit, progress, and functioning well in society.
And yet multiple studies have been dedicated to diagnosing Van Gogh, according to Dietrich Blumer no less than thirty different ones throughout the years. He contributes to reaffirming these, however, by trying to prove which one fits best. He seems to think Van Gogh developed “an interictal dysphoric disorder” (Blumer, 2002, pp. 522-3). A term that in fact did not exist until 1923.  Accordingly, it is impossible that Van Gogh suffered from it in the 1880s. The same goes for borderline personality disorder, which was invented in the 1960s.  And even though the symptoms of bipolar disorder have a history that goes back to Ancient Greece, the contemporary term was coined in 1980.  At the most we could say something along the lines of, ‘in our time, he would fall under this or that label’, but it is deficient to diagnose him with contemporary concepts.
Not just the medical diagnoses are liable to time. It is peculiar that we acknowledge Van Gogh as being ‘mad’, ‘mentally ill’ or ‘unstable’, based on the 19th-century notion of ‘abnormality’. Or, as Lennard Davis argues: “ – the normal – is a configuration that arises in a particular historical moment” (Davis, 2013, p. 12). Van Gogh’s image is created after contemporary interpretations of his letters and works, and after what other people have told. It seems to make sense to reconstruct his story based on these 19th-century sources, because it is all that is left and should be factual and truthful. But it is essential to remember that this narrative is formed from a 21st-century perspective.
It is relevant to note which aspects are pointed out when framing the artist’s story, especially when it comes to his mental health. To illustrate this I use two seemingly similar works, namely Trees and Undergrowth from 1887 and Undergrowth from 1890. As the titles suggest, they both show a woodland scene with multiple green, brown, blue, and yellow shades. When looking closer it becomes clear that the first is painted with the Pointillist dotting technique, whereas the second has thicker short brushstrokes alternated with a smoother surface. In both Van Gogh experiments with catching the light, and both show his love for nature. The latter has become a metaphor for his state of mind, as he painted it in the garden of the asylum. Paintings like Undergrowth become charged, as they are explicitly linked to the artist’s mental state and to the institute of the asylum.
There are multiple examples like these to find in the museum. The same goes, for instance, for the Pointillist work Garden with Courting Couples (1887) and Garden of the Asylum (1890). Both show a garden with small human figures, but the description of the latter states that “the tiny figure in the overwhelming landscape reinforces the existential dread Van Gogh wishes to convey.” Does it? Or is this interpretation imposed, using his mental health as metaphor?
It is precarious to reduce Van Gogh’s art and life to his mental health, as it reinforces the stigmatising concepts of ‘madness’ and ‘mental disorders’. This is quite a delicate problem, because it appears to be no problem at all. Stigmatisation is aligned with normative thinking, because of which identifying or interpreting certain notions can seem to be harmless. In using Van Gogh’s hospitalisation as a tool for interpretation, it is an easy step to jump to conclusions about not only his particular situation, but also about mental health in general.
There is a fine line between stating the historical events – such as Van Gogh’s ear incident, hospitalisation and suicide – and signifying these with normative associations. That is, associations that place mental health next to productivity, advantages, or madness. Instead, I propose a repositioning of the narrative framework, in which the emphasis lies on rethinking the normativity and acceptability of the mental health concept, rather than presenting illusionary causal relations as given. The Van Gogh museum could well ask questions, for instance, about when ‘insanity’ becomes ‘illness’, who is allowed to suffer from it and why, what it means to one’s identity to be diagnosed with a mental disorder, and where the lines are drawn. And in reaction to the heading ‘Painting against All Odds’ it could ask: What odds?
Blumer, D. (2002) The Illness of Vincent van Gogh. AM J Psychiatry, 159-4: 519-526.
Jarman, M. (2011) ‘Coming Up from Underground. Uneasy Dialogues at the Intersections of Race, Mental Illness and Disability Studies’, in: Bell, C. M. Blackness and Disability: Critical Examinations and Cultural Interventions. Vol. 21. LIT Verlag Münster: 9-30.
Davis, L. (2013) ‘Introduction: Normality, Power and Culture’, in: The Disability Studies Reader. New York: Routledge: 1-14.