Vincent van Gogh’s Depression: Medical-Moral Lessons

Vincent van Gogh, Starry Night over the Rhône (1888), oil on canvas, 72.5 x 92 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. WikiArt.

Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890) was both a beautiful person and a creative genius who suffered with bouts of depression. There are different medical opinions as to why he suffered from mental illness and, in particular, depression. For example, around 26 September 1883, he wrote to his brother Theo,

“I cannot hide from you that I am overcome by a feeling of great anxiety, depression, a je ne sais quoi [“I do not know what”] of discouragement and despair more than I can tell. And if I cannot find comfort, it will be too overwhelming.”

As an artist, he would often find comfort in his creativity. However, his depression and anxiety would return with greater frequency and, at times, intensity. Vincent was suffering, even to the point of harming himself. For example, on 23 December 1888, in a fit of anger, he took “a razor and cut off a portion of his left ear.” Because he himself knew that he was ill, he decided to commit himself to an asylum, attempting to get well. Roughly a years later, on 30 or 31 December 1889, he wrote about the incident, admitting,

“I assure you that last year I almost hated the idea of regaining my health – of only feeling somewhat better for a shorter or longer time – always living in fear of relapses – I almost hated the idea, I tell you – so little did I feel inclined to begin again. Often I said to myself that I preferred that there be nothing further, that this be the end. Ah well – it would seem that we are not the masters of this – of our existence – it seems that what matters is that one should learn to want to go on living, even when suffering. Oh, I feel so cowardly in this respect; even when my health has returned, I am still afraid.”

While he was grateful for his recovery, his suffering eventually became too much for him and on 27 July 1890, he attempted to take his own life, shooting himself in the chest. Two days later, he died. But despite the way he ended his life, his mental illness and character-flaws, he was beautiful. He was also successful, despite the fact that he was often plagued by thoughts of being a failure.

But note well: At the beginning of my article, I introduced Vincent van Gogh as a “person,” before I described his “condition.” The reason is that a person “is” always more than what he or she “has.” No condition or classification, whether it be in psychology, medicine or any other science, can remove from a person his or her humanity. Once a human person, always a human person. That is why Vincent was a person and so are all those who live with and suffer from depression.

That is also why health care workers, such as medical doctors and nurses, always treat a human being in treating his or her illness, whether it be mild or severe. The human “core,” that is, the essentially human, always remains intact, despite his or her mental or bodily illness.

May we in the West – who are so accustomed to classifying common traits or features of human beings and assigning “names” to those traits – not lose sight of the obvious, namely, that a human being, regardless of his or her condition, is and always remains a person.