The misunderstood genius of Vincent van Gogh

Sunshine: “He loved yellow,” wrote his friend Paul Gauguin. “Those glimmers of sunlight rekindled his soul.”

Does genius go hand-in-hand with “some touch of madness”? Aristotle thought so. No one exemplifies the idea more than Van Gogh, who has a new exhibition in London. But is it really true?

The last time there was a big Vincent van Gogh show in London, it was so popular that the crowds wore through the floorboards in just five weeks.

It was 1947. Britain had won the Second World War, but it had been plunged into an even harsher period of austerity. People were “colour-starved,” as one newspaper put it. But then the exhibition opened, “and now they queue to see paintings.” It was dubbed the “Millbank Miracle”.

Now, Van Gogh is back at the Tate Britain for another major exhibition of his work. “Van Gogh and Britain” opened this week, and it focuses on his life in London as a young man.

He moved to the capital city for three years in his early 20s, when he was training to be an art dealer. He arrived in 1873, three years after Charles Dickens had died. Van Gogh became a lifelong fan of his novels and devoured those of George Eliot.

English art “didn’t appeal to me much at first, one has to get used to it,” he wrote to his brother Theo. “There are some good painters here, though.” The exhibition shows how some of those painters influenced his own style later.

“Looking at his work through his relationship with Britain brings into the foreground his amazing intellectual curiosity,” the curator Carol Jacobi told the New York Times. The picture that emerges of a smart young professional is far from the “mad genius” image that many associate with him.

That is based on the final decade of his life, when he had moved to France and finally begun to make paintings of his own. The story of this time is well-known: plagued by severe depression and mental illness, he cut off his own ear; spent time in an asylum; and eventually committed suicide aged 37.

For years, critics obsessed over how the tragedy of his life influenced his art. In 1910, an Observer critic called some of his paintings “merely the ravings of a maniac”.

But his letters show that he did not paint at all during his darkest periods. In fact, it was the opposite: painting was a way to try to keep sane.

Tortured genius

Is there a link between creativity and mental illness? It has been believed so since the Ancient Greeks: “There is no great genius without some touch of madness,” wrote Aristotle. Great artists like Lord Byron, Virginia Woolf and Van Gogh all reinforced the idea. Perhaps the extreme emotions and thinking “outside the box” all help to aid creativity.

Or is this a dangerous stereotype? There are plenty of great artists who did not suffer from mental illness. Many who do find that it stops them working at all, and today art is often used as a form of therapy. Take Van Gogh, who painted his sunflowers in a happy period. He was not great because of his problems — but in spite of them.

You Decide

  1. Who is your favourite artist?
  2. Is there a link between creativity and mental illness?


  1. Look at Van Gogh’s painting of sunflowers at the top of this article. Write a short paragraph explaining how it makes you feel, and why.
  2. Paint a scene from your local neighbourhood which is inspired by Van Gogh’s impressionist style. Use lots of colour, and remember that how the scene makes you feel is more important than how accurate it is.

Some People Say...

“Normality is a paved road: it’s comfortable to walk, but no flowers grow on it.”

Vincent van Gogh

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The exhibition will be on show from now until August 11, and includes over 50 works by Van Gogh, and 50 by British artists inspired by him. As for creativity and mental illness, at least one study found that artists are overrepresented in large groups of people with mental health problems.
What do we not know?
Why this is. Are people with mental illness more likely to be creative? Or do the stereotypes of the “mad genius” attract them to creative jobs? Does genius make mental illness more likely, or do people seek out art as a way of expressing their feelings? Scientists do not agree, and it is difficult to know for sure. (And, of course, it is different depending on the individual.)

Word Watch

Five weeks
When the show was over, the museum wrote to the Arts Council asking for money to fix the three years’ worth of damage that had been done to the floors while the exhibition was open.
Lifelong fan
In a portrait of his friend Marie Ginoux, Van Gogh included a copy of Dickens’s Christmas Stories and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. When he spent time at an asylum, he brought copies of Dickens’s novels in French.
For example, John Everett Millais’s 1870 landscape “Chill October” is thought to have inspired Van Gogh’s 1885 “Autumn Landscape at Dusk”.
It is impossible to diagnose historical figure using modern psychology, and there is a lot of disagreement about Van Gogh’s mental illness. However, it certainly included periods of depression, which he described in letters to his brother. “One feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep, dark well, utterly helpless.”
This was cut off on December 23rd 1888, about 18 months before Van Gogh died. For more, read the related article below.

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