Starry Night and Bipolar Disorder

Beatriz Freitas
4 min readAug 9, 2020

What Vincent van Gogh’s painting tells us about his psychiatric condition

Vincent van Gogh is one of the most recognizable artists due to his signature paintbrush strokes and his swirling paintings, like Starry Night. However, people also know him as the artist who cut his ear, an event captured in his famous Self-Portrait With Bandaged Ear, and that later committed suicide. Even though van Gogh had a short life, it was very productive in the sense that in less than two decades, he painted over 860 canvas.

“Starry Night” by van Gogh — oil on canvas

Out of all the paintings done by this genius artist and misunderstood soul, Starry Night is the one that personifies best van Gogh’s psychiatric symptoms, since it is believed that he had bipolar disorder.

Disclaimer: A fundamental part of Art is to understand the intent behind a canvas, but also the reasons for the use of a specific brush, paint, or technique. In Vincent’s case, not all his choices were conscious; a lot were more of a product of his subconscious, and how he experienced life through the perspective of an untreated mental condition. So keep this in mind when going through some of the associations made here relating his art and where his mind was when he painted them.

Mania and Sky:

Bright Venus and swirling Winds

In psychiatry, mania is described as a stage of euphoria, in which patients experience things in a heightened and unrealistic way, which can also include hallucinations.

When we observe the sky van Gogh painted, we see two essential elements that catch our attention: the stars and the wind. Both were captured in a hyperbolic version to portray altogether how the artist not only saw but felt the night.

The fallout luminosity around the stars passes the sensation of brightness. If it wasn’t for the dark tones of blue, individually, they could represent the sun in a daylight landscape. The swirling wind that cruises through the sky shows us the distortion with which Vincent saw the painted scene, almost through the lens of a spinning camera.

How he captured these elements could have been intentionally done for artistic…

Beatriz Freitas

Brazilian. Fourth-year medical student. Love arts and social science.