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Monday, February 4, 2019

The Myth of Vincent van Gogh’s Madness

Self Portrait of Vincent van Gogh (1887)
Vincent van Gogh is remembered as a tortured artist who battled with mental illness for much of his life. His paintings are regarded as the works of a mad genius. The problem with this view of van Gogh is that it is not true.

Deirdre N. McCloskey, in her book The Bourgeoisie Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce, (Chapter 13: “Van Gogh and The Transcendent Profane”), points out that “Vincent was a poet in paint, a self-educated sophisticate. He read novels and journals of opinion ravenously in four languages, taking themes for paintings directly from them, and wrote letters in three of the languages often and well, especially to his equally sophisticated art-dealer brother, Theo.”

Van Gogh was a sane, rational, sophisticated, and artistic man for almost his entire life. He was ill only for the last nineteen months of life, and that too, only from time to time. McCloskey writes:
Van Gogh’s illnesses did not make his art. They blocked it. In his estimation, sex did, too. He declared in a letter of June 1888 to his young artist friend Émile Bernard: “Painting and fucking a lot don’t go together, it softens the brain. Which is a bloody nuisance.” His art certainly did not derive from his madness, or from his sexual activity, or from his bodily pains, or from his drinking. He painted when he was well and sober. His art had nothing to do with being sick.  
What is this insistence on the mad, alcoholic artist? Such a man (always a man) is above all imprudent. He does not plan. He can’t handle money. He injures himself. The bourgeois is known as a seeker of safety—this against the fact of risk in a commercial life. The mad artist rejects safety. The myth is an antibourgeois faith in the autonomous human spirit—this against the opportunities for expression in a commercial life. Who is in love with the myth? Sons and daughters of the bourgeoisie. 
McCloskey doubts the famous story of van Gogh cutting his ear. She suggests that the painter Paul Gauguin could be responsible for that incident. “In his painting van Gogh was not foolish or mad. There is even doubt, by the way, about the circumstances of the ear-cutting-off. A German art historian, Rita Wildegans, claims that Gauguin did the ear-cutting, and that van Gogh was covering up for his friend by claiming that he himself did it.”

The legend of van Gogh’s madness was created by the art critics six months before his death. McCloskey says that the critics might have been inspired by Émile Zola's 1886 novel L'Œuvre. Zola was advancing the theories of the doctor and criminologist Cesare Lombroso that men of genius were mentally ill—for example, epileptic. Van Gogh objected to being labeled insane. He wrote a letter to an art critic called Albert Aurier and pointed out that the kind of paintings that he was doing could not be the work of a madman. But the legend of his madness became unstoppable.

McCloskey says that the critics and moviemakers continued to depict van Gogh as a madman because “it fits well the late-Romantic, wannabe-aristocratic notion of the mad artist, as in Kirk Douglas’s riveting but nutty performance in the movie Lust for Life.” She conjectures that if van Gogh had not fallen sick in 1888 and he had not committed suicide in July 1890, then “we would have more of his art, with the same qualities—which were technical developments, not effusions of madness—at a lower price per painting, unhyped by the Romance of his illness and death.”

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