by Katie Davis
Francisco Goya and Vincent Van Gogh had a lot in common; not only were they two of the greatest artistic innovators of 18th and 19th centuries, but they were both a bit bonkers. Though Van Gogh is known for lopping off a piece of his own ear lobe with a razor blade after an attempted attack on Paul Guaguin, this outburst is not entirely surprising when we take a look at Van Gogh’s history of mental illness and substance abuse.
Throughout his life Van Gogh suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy which probably wasn’t helped by his fondness for absinthe. Many believe he also suffered from bipolar disorder and mania, which would explain his spells of extreme enthusiasm and artistic creation followed by bouts of depression and his eventual suicide in 1890 at a young 37.
Though Goya lived a long life, he also had his fair share of personal struggles, especially as he grew older. After fighting an unknown illness, Goya become completely deaf at age 47 and in his later years he sunk into depression and isolated himself from Spanish society in a country house called Quinta del Sordo, the Deaf Man’s House.
Obviously these artists suffered significantly from their illnesses, yet it seems more than coincidence that some of their most famous and thought-provoking work emerged from periods of madness. Van Gogh produced his celebrated, Starry Night, while staying in Saint-Rémy-de Provence, an asylum for the mentally ill, and some say the painting was influenced by his use of digitalis, a drug used to quell epileptic seizures and mania. The substance can cause patients to find their surroundings tinted yellow and green and to see halos around sources of light, visual traits clearly present in Starry Night and much of Van Gogh’s work.
Though perhaps they are not his most famous pieces, “The Black Paintings,” frescos which Goya completed privately on the walls of his country house during periods of isolation, are extremely intriguing and provocative. They depict scenes of witches, darkness, and gore that truly convey the raw emotion of a deeply troubled man, yet they also force us to confront the evil that resides within all humankind.
In the end, it is a pity that Van Gogh and Goya were forced to wrestle with the demons of mental illness throughout their lives; however, in appreciation we can value the work of these geniuses not only as artistic masterpieces, but also as windows into the human psyche.
Francisco Goya – b. March 30, 1746
Vincent Van Gogh – b. March 30, 1853