These artists with mental illness left an enduring mark on art history.
The question of whether mental illness affects artists and their art has been the subject of a long-standing argument among artists — and those who study them.
Whether mental illness helps or hinders the artist, or has no effect on their art whatsoever, it’s hard to deny how commonly mental disorder appears in artists’ biographies, from painters to writers to actors and anyone who regularly makes a vessel of themselves — mind, body or both — to deliver artistic creations to the world.
Because art is often the result of something that needs purged, sometimes it’s the most revealing insight into a person’s inner world. Here are four legendary artists who lived with mental illness and left a monumental impression on art history.
Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)
Let’s start with the best-known case. Vincent van Gogh dealt with a lifetime of depression, exacerbated by alcoholism. Letters to his brother Theo reveal that Vincent struggled with the idea of what makes a man good. After spending most of his life in abject poverty and suffering from crippling bouts of depression, eventually he made a choice that most people recall first when they think of van Gogh: disfiguring self-mutilation. The aftermath — head wrapped in bandages — became the subject of one of his more famous self-portraits. In and out of mental clinics for the latter part of his life, tragically van Gogh died by suicide at the age of 37.
Louis Wain (1860-1939)
Having started as a magazine illustrator, Louis Wain was hired to do line drawings of livestock for agriculture shows. Wain then transitioned almost entirely away from landscapes and portraits to drawing dogs and cats. After giving his ailing wife a cat, Wain began using the house pet as a model for what would become his most famous series of works: cuddly anthropomorphized animals for children’s books. Wain’s cats were featured not only in books but on greeting cards, giving Wain a career for more than 30 years creating almost only cat pictures.
In his later years, Wain’s work began to take on what today would be considered an almost psychedelic quality. His characters began to lose the look of fun-loving felines at play and the drawings’ focus seemed to slowly inch toward looking out of the picture, at the viewer.
Following Wain’s increasingly odd, sometimes violent behavior, his sister committed him to Springfield Mental Hospital.
The concentric lines of Wain’s last handful of drawings imply a manic vibration. The figures and wild colors bear an almost claustrophobic, kaleidoscopic quality.
After Wain’s passing, some have speculated that he suffered from Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite carried by cat feces. It’s haunting to look at Wain’s final works, imagining that his cat pictures — with their antagonizing glares and haunting eyes — were influenced by a disease brought about by the animals he loved so much.
Francisco Goya (1746-1828)
After gaining a degree of popularity with rococo-style tapestry cartoons, Spanish painter Francisco Goya started to show a darker side, beginning with his etching The Garroted Man.
Goya’s early work was soft and kind, a world apart from his later works, for which he remains most recognized. His Black Paintings, created from 1819 to 1823, include what’s arguably his best-known piece: Saturn Devouring His Son.
The shift from Goya’s early works to his Black Paintings, which were painted on the walls of his home, thrill with dark themes. Goya began to go deaf, suffered a worsening nervous breakdown and doubted his own sanity. The series of 14 (some say 15) murals is a disturbing reflection of the artist’s growing isolation and terror.
What’s most interesting about the Black Paintings is how Goya arranged the murals in his home. Some speculate that the series is meant to be taken as a whole, depending on which floor of the house you’re currently on and which mural faces the other. It’s also interesting that the names of all the paintings were given posthumously by Goya’s friends; no one knew what any of them were actually titled.
Letters between Goya’s associates illuminate the possible cause of their friend’s slowly degrading health. It’s believed Goya suffered multiple small strokes, brought about by high blood pressure, which led to his loss of hearing and poor sense of balance. Following increasing deafness, further physical and mental decline and what one ex-wife called “illicit behavior,” Goya passed away at the age of 82.
Richard Dadd (1817-1886)
Like Wain, Richard Dadd began his artistic career as an illustrator. But following a trip along the Nile River, Dadd began to show sudden signs of mental illness. With violent outbursts, he claimed he was possessed by the Egyptian god Osiris. His family decided to have him committed upon his return. While committed — for a 20-year stay — Dadd created a bulk of his incredibly detailed works. He worked on his most famous, The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke, for nine years.
Interestingly, The Fairy Feller Master Stroke inspired the Queen song of the same name. The lyrics evoke Dadd’s overly packed scenes, with numerous characters and obtuse sights described within the song.
It’s believed that Dadd suffered from schizophrenia, which wasn’t as understood then as it is today. Like the other artists featured here, he was simply written off as mad or hysteric. What leads many to believe he was suffering from schizophrenia is his work’s repeating themes of growing paranoia and isolation. Many of his paintings’ central characters resemble Dadd and direct a bewildered gaze out from the worlds in which they find themselves, as if they’re just as lost in their worlds as Dadd was in ours.
Spending nearly half his life in some sort of mental facility or another, Dadd painted constantly up until his death at the age of 69 in 1886.