The Case Files: Vincent van Gogh

Much like my friend Abraham Lincoln, I was quite drawn to the following fellow that is the (not surprising) subject of our Case Files post today.

Maybe it’s because he’s a ginger. You guys know I love the gingers. I am pro-ginger and you can’t stop me.

Anyway, I remember learning about Vincent van Gogh in art class in the first grade. I had a really cool art teacher named Dr. Battle. Her art room was magical and she told us all about Van Gogh, including the part about him cutting off his ear.  Sadly, that’s all I ever knew of him for years.I just knew he was “crazy,” he had cut off his ear and given it to some woman (Dr. Battle left out the whole prostitute part), and that he had painted one of the most moving things my 6-year-old eyes had ever seen.

I am also a huge fan of sunflowers. They’ve been my favorite flowers since I can remember knowing what sunflowers looked like. They just make me feel radiant inside when I look at them and Van Gogh just happened to like painting them a lot.

So, after some serious research I will give the briefest synopsis I can of Van Gogh’s life with mental illness. I think it’s not a surprise that Van Gogh was a choice for The Case Files. He is generally regarded as being insane more than he’s regarded as being completely normal. However, he is fascinating and a true example of how madness can certainly be genius.

Anyway, Vincent van Gogh is Dutch. Some of you out there thought he was French, don’t lie. I once thought that as well since he spent a large portion of his life rubbing elbows with other impressionist painters in France. I just assumed and I was wrong. I have slapped myself on the wrist for the mistake. No need to let me know.

He was raised by a minister and was actually named after his brother who had died at birth. So, yeah. He was named after his dead brother… and a bunch of other men in his family named Vincent. Apparently with the mortality rates of infants, this was a normal thing. Nowadays, it is highly recommended you do not name your children after your dead children. It just sets up this weird precedent for the child. May have been weird for Vincent, maybe not.

His family was also quite artistic. Van Gogh started life relatively normal, pursuing his family’s passions for religion and art. He entered the seminary and created art on the side. He totally failed at the seminary thing. Like, super failed. He also tried being an art dealer and royally failed at that, too.

Then he tried proposing to this woman he fell in love with who lived in the building he lived in. Yeah, that didn’t go so well. She was apparently engaged secretly to another former tenant. Major dramz. Van Gogh basically left town and ended up sleeping on a cot of straw behind a bakery “crying himself to sleep,” according to the bakery’s owners. He justified his crappy living arrangements as a commitment to living with God. All reports point to this as the major turn in Van Gogh’s sanity. The guy was straight up heartbroken and using religion as a coping mechanism.

This is considered to be Van Gogh’s first painting.

He moved back in with his parents. I know, it was shameful back then as well. He was in a shoddy state. Then he went and stayed with his cousin-in-law and tried to get his artistic self into professional gear. His cousin gave him some materials for painting. Van Gogh started honing his craft, but not before falling in love with his other cousin who had been recently widowed. He proposed and everyone except Van Gogh saw this as a gigantic trainwreck. His cousin actually said to him, “No, never, never,” (niet, nooit, nimmer). Major burn. Basically, Van Gogh was considered a giant loser and screw-up and everyone saw it but him.

So, he persisted and was basically given the 1800s version of  a restraining order. Van Gogh did the next best thing and continued down his fervent religious path, but this time it was with a prostitute. His family was not keen on this idea and he eventually left her and she later drowned herself. The first lady who wants Van Gogh and his family won’t let it be. Such a tragedy.

Well anyway, this whole time he’s schmoosing with other artists, drinking like crazy (the man loved his absinthe), and smoking himself into oblivion with very rare instances of consuming food. His brother/bestie Theo was concerned because Van Gogh was quite destructive by that point. Theo came in for damage control and the brothers began living together.

Then Van Gogh got gonorrhea. Then, he probably got syphillis. Poor guy. He was “treated” for both illnesses.

Then he met a lady who really, really liked him! She wasn’t a prostitute. She was about a decade older, so I’m guessing not too foxy, but hey… Vincent was desired. Guess what? He didn’t want her. Typical. They got engaged anyway, both their families basically said, “Ummm, yeahhh, not so much,” they didn’t get married and then she drowned herself, too! More tragedy.

The next period of Vincent’s life is like a hazy blur. He basically spirals into what can only be interpreted as severe bipolar fits. He writes things to his brother like, “Sometimes moods of indescribable anguish, sometimes moments when the veil of time and fatality of circumstances seemed to be torn apart for an instant.”

When he was in the dark place, he wouldn’t paint. When he was manic, he would churn out some beautiful work. He bought a house where he started creating beautiful stuff. The style we mostly see in museums of his work now. All the beautiful swirls and wonderful colors. He also got in a huge argument with Gauguin, a fellow painter whom he lived with. He went into a psychotic delusion, cut off his ear, handed it to a prostitute, and passed out in a pile of his own blood only to be discovered by Gauguin. This was the first time he entered an asylum for mental illness.

His brother rented him two rooms in the asylum, one for sleeping and living, one for painting. Van Gogh was allowed supervised walks where he painted the grounds. His time in psychological isolation produced some of his most beautiful and vibrant works.

Shortly after being released from his time in psychological “treatment” Van Gogh shot himself in the chest with a revolver. It took him a little over a day to die because he hadn’t wounded himself fatally, it was simply a case of infection from the wound.

As well all know, no one really appreciated the beauty of Van Gogh’s work until he had died. People had memorial exhibitions of his works shortly after his death and his fame only grew from there. His paintings sell for millions of dollars to fancy private collectors all over the world. Why shouldn’t they? They are wonderfully unique and the product of a beautiful and challenged mind.

Van Gogh wasn’t just a little unhinged, his door was completely off it’s frame. However, some people, including myself, believe there is rarely true genius without some bit of madness. The frame of the door holds us all glued into life and society. Vincent van Gogh was both blessed and cursed to not be constricted by the rigidity of a frame for his mind. He suffered, but he also probably experienced some of the most profound emotional and artistic depths few on this earth have had the opportunity to experience.

If you feel a little kooky sometimes, take heart! You have the ability to recognize your door frame and embrace the desire to step outside of it and explore your creative genius if you so dare.

“I am hard at it, painting with the enthusiasm of a Marseillais eating bouillabaisse, which won’t surprise you when you know that what I’m at is the painting of some sunflowers. If I carry out this idea there will be a dozen panels. So the whole thing will be a symphony in blue and yellow. I am working at it every morning from sunrise on, for the flowers fade so quickly. I am now on the fourth picture of sunflowers. This fourth one is a bunch of 14 flowers … it gives a singular effect.” Vincent van Gogh


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Posted on by Jen Bingaman, M.A. LMHCA Posted in Mind, The Case Files
Jen Bingaman, M.A. LMHCA

About Jen Bingaman, M.A. LMHCA

Hi, I’m Jen. I’m a mental health counselor newly residing in Seattle, Washington. I strongly believe in the mind-body connection as the cornerstone of my professional ideology, along with the healing possibilities of puppies, a good glass of red wine, the smell of a new book, and the importance of travel.

  • Kayla

    This was wonderful. Starry Night is one of the most beautiful paintings I’ve ever seen. I agree that no great genius or creativity can be achieved without madness. That’s how I explain my crazy, anyway.

    • Jen!

      That’s how I explain your crazy, too. Just kidding. I can’t explain your crazy. ;)