Starry Night and Bipolar Disorder

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 purposes to add more synesthesia to the canvas or could be a result of a symptom he was experiencing when he painted, such as delirium.

Fun Fact: Vincent painted Planet Venus (the clearer star closest to the cypresses), inspired by the first photograph taken of a night sky in 1889.

Psychomotricity and Brushstrokes:

Thick layers of impasto to portrait the brightness of the moon

The aggressive and marked brushstrokes are a signature trait of van Gogh’s paintings, but it could also point out to his altered and intense psychomotricity.

The strokes on the canvas, for example, could be a result of sensory stimulations that later were transformed trough motor skills into layers with the same intensity with which he experienced them.

Although this process is relatively irrational, some conscious decisions were made when painting, such as the choice for a thick application with a mixture called impasto, which left the brush impressions on the surface of the canvas. Also, the choice of color, along with the shapes of the elements portraited, infer to a logical thought process, even if the artist was under a stage of mania.

Fun Fact: The astonishing number of paints van Gogh left behind in a small period also indicates euphoria in which patients fell a desire and need to express themselves more often than they usually would, in his case through art.

Melancholy and Church:

Lights out in a Church

In the bottom section of the painting, we see a lot of houses with lights on and a tower in the middle of town in the dark. This church could represent a critic for the institution which van Gogh was a part of in the early stages of his life.

His banishment from religious training might be one of the most critical events in the artist’s life since this was his first of many rejections and, in a way, the starter of a melancholic path, triggering the other stage of bipolar disorder, which is presented as depression.

Also, the absence of light, capture his resentment towards being denied membership in the clerical life due to his radical religious vision, something he registered in the letters he wrote to his brother Theo.

Fun Fact: Before van Gogh moved to London to pursue his career as an artist, he was part of a convent and wanted to be a pastor like his father, which explains his early connection to religion and later decision to live a simple life.

Today, we know that having a mental condition isn’t necessarily a sentence of death or suffering. But socially, we are still prejudicial and misinformed towards mental health and people with psychological conditions. Vincent van Gogh is probably one of the best examples when it comes to how psychiatric patients can accomplish much in life and how their perspectives, distorted or not, are still valuable to society, as well as their lives.

Brazilian. First-year medical student. Love arts and social sciences.

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