There is a fine line between madness and genius.

We can never know for certain where creativity comes from. Some creatives claim that creativity is the work of a genie or some sort of deity that whispers in the ears of those who would listen. Some claim it is a gift, embedded in one’s DNA and passed down to one’s children. We cannot tell for sure. But we all know that creativity comes with a unique air. It is something you can almost sniff off a person the moment you meet them. Creative geniuses have been seen in all fields, from the sciences and philosophy to art in all its forms. What attracts us most about these “creatives” is their eccentricity and their courage in facing society and its never-ending social criteria. This list, however, is dedicated to the artists who gave up their mental sanity for the sake of their art. Or maybe it was their lack of sanity that allowed them to create beautiful pieces of art in the first place. Recently, studies have been conducted on the link between creativity and mental illness. Even though researchers could not come up with a definite conclusion on the matter, we have gathered a list of artists whose art is the product of sheer madness. It is interesting to note that some of the most aesthetically pleasing pieces of art were the product of anguish and misery.

 

Vincent Van Gogh:

“How much sadness there is in life! Nevertheless one must not become melancholy. One must seek distraction in other things, and the right thing is to work.”

Self-Portrait, Oil on pasteboard, 42 × 33.7 cm, Spring 1887

Fragments of Van Gogh’s tale are well known to almost everyone, but not many know his whole story. As a child, Vincent had no interest in art. It was at the age of 27 that he decided he wanted to be an artist. At the time he was already suffering from depression and dedicated himself fully to his art, even though it barely paid his cost of living and for a very long time, he was financially dependent on his younger brother, Theo.

In his final years, Van Gogh’s mental health deteriorated and he was admitted into an asylum after cutting off his ear in front of fellow artist and friend, Paul Gauguin.

Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear, Easel and Japanese Print, Oil on canvas, 60 × 49 cm, 1889

After his mental state stabilized, Van Gogh continued to paint at the asylum. In his year-long stay there, he was able to produce 100 new paintings including his most famous, “Starry Night”.

Portrait of Dr. Gachet, oil on canvas, 67 cm × 56 cm (1890) Dr Gachet was a physician who treated Van Gogh before his death
Starry Night, oil on canvas, 73.7 cm × 92.1 cm, 1889

In the last months of his life, Van Gogh produced a painting a day until his illness got the best of him. On July 27th of 1890, he shot himself in the chest with a revolver and remained in bed for two days before dying. On his deathbed he managed to utter to his brother his last words; “the sadness will last forever.” We are only left with speculations and assumptions on how Van Gogh’s illness played a role in shaping his career as an artist. His depression could have been the reason he started painting in the first place, and his delicate application of bright colors might have been his own way of healing himself.

Louis Wain

“Intelligence in the cat is underrated.”

Louis Wain is an obscure artist who painted cats doing mundane things like smoking or enjoying a dinner at a restaurant. He is most known, however, for being the artist who suffered from Schizophrenia, and it is believed that his paintings were a manifestation of his disorder. His paintings decorate psychology books showing how his style developed as his illness progressed. The cute cats transformed into psychedelic and abstract demons as he battled with his illness.

Louis Wain, Summer Tea Party

His obsession with painting cats started when Louis was married to Emily Richardson, who suffered and died from cancer. Louis noticed that while she suffered from her illness, their cat brought whatever little joy a living thing can bring to a dying person’s life. He started painting cats to cheer her up and she urged him to publish them. Sadly, she died before she could see her wish realized.

Wain, Development of Cats throughout career

Edvard Munch:

Sickness, insanity and death were the angels that surrounded my cradle and they have followed me throughout my life”

Edvard Munch is the artist behind one of the most well known paintings in the world; The Scream. He was influenced by Sigmund Freud, depression and his episodes of anxiety. In his work, he depicted loneliness, death and terror.

Munch, The Scream,oil, tempera, pastel and crayon on cardboard, 91 cm × 73.5 cm, 1893

Freud is a well-known psychologist who was the first to note that childhood affects the behaviour of humans as adults. Munch had a traumatic childhood during which he saw his mother die of tuberculosis when he was only five, a few years after which his sister died of the same illness. Munch depicted these events of his life in three paintings: “By the Death Bed,” “Death in the Sickroom” and “The Sick Child.”

In his later years, Munch suffered from alcoholism and multiple breakdowns which caused him to seek help from therapists. He was eventually hospitalized.

Munch, “By the Death Bed,” “Death in the Sickroom” and “The Sick Child.”

Richard Dadd
“I had such ideas that, had I spoken of them openly, I must, if answered in the world’s fashion, have been told I was unreasonable.”

Richard Dadd is one of the creative geniuses of the late nineteenth century, and like all the creative geniuses on this list, he suffered from a mental illness which was only recently speculated to be manic-depression. He had his first psychotic episode in Egypt where he was convinced that he was called by the god Osiris. Afterwards he became convinced that he was in a battle with the Devil, who could assume any shape and form. This belief of his can be seen depicted in many of his works.

Dadd, “Come unto These Yellow Sands”, oil on canvas, 55 x 77.5 cm, 1842

In 1843, Dadd killed his father in Cobham (a small village in England) after having been convinced he was the Devil in disguise. He was only in his mid-twenties at the time. Dadd was then held by the police and placed in an asylum. While further investigating the case, the police found a list written by Dadd, titled “Who must die” and his father’s name was on top of the list.

Dadd produced some of the most melancholic paintings of all time, where the eternal struggle between good and evil was depicted, and the complexities of life materialised.

Dadd, 'Contradiction. Oberon and Titania', Oil on canvas, 61 x 75 cm, 1854-8
Dadd, Portrait of a Young Man, oil on canvas, 60 x 50 cm, 1853
Editor’s Notice: As the writer mentions, research surrounding the connection between creativity and mental illness is still inconclusive, and this article is not meant to depict mental illness as a prerequisite to creativity, nor is it meant to romanticize or detract from the gravity thereof.

Lubna Aqel
Lubna Aqel

I’m an Architect, writer, and a full-time awkward human being with a particular interest in Art, Philosophy, and Sociology. I find great pleasure in making-up wacky theories and interpreting social phenomena and weird occurrences.
Disclaimer: nothing makes me more furious than those who deem art unnecessary.

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