July 28, 2000 -- If Vincent van Gogh lived today, would he likely be taking
antidepressants, straightening out his life, getting a day job? Would a less
turbulent van Gogh have found inspiration to paint Starry Night or
Blackbirds in Wheat Field?
Many of the world's great creative geniuses and political leaders are
remembered to this day by the works and legacies they achieved during times of
personal illness, notes Paul Wolf, MD, a researcher at the University of
California and VA Medical Centers in San Diego. "Illness can profoundly
affect the productivity and creativity of those who are ill," he tells
The creative effort "helps bind the pain and helps them move out of
misery," Eugenio Rothe, MD, associate professor of psychiatry and
pediatrics at the University of Miami School of Medicine, tells WebMD. "It
helps lift them out of depression. A lot of people who have had tragedy in
their personal lives undergo a very creative period when they come out of
tragedy. Creation replaces the loss."
Was there truly inspiration in van Gogh's episodes of mania and depression?
Quite possibly, Rothe says. "Manic-depressives tend to make more
idiosyncratic word and idea associations. ... Therein lies the threshold to
creativity." Famously creative manic-depressives include Mark Twain,
Hermann Hesse, Georgia O'Keefe, Ernest Hemingway, and Cole Porter, Wolf
Not just painters and writers, not merely manic-depressives, found immense
inspiration amid illness and disease, Wolf says.
In the world of music, Antonio Vivaldi compensated for debilitating illness
by leaving the priesthood and dedicating himself to music -- all because asthma
attacks prevented him from conducting Mass, Wolf says. Also, it's likely that
Ludwig von Beethoven began to lose his hearing at the age of 28, due to a
condition called Paget's disease of the bone. By age 44, he was completely deaf
-- yet went on to compose some of his most memorable symphonies.
Violinist Niccolo Paganini was likely born with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a
connective tissue disease that makes joints extremely flexible. "He was
known as a demonist violinist," Wolf tells WebMD. "He could play scales
faster than anyone. He composed music that had to be played very, very
As for van Gogh, Wolf says the artist seems to have suffered from both
undiagnosed manic depression and epilepsy. No treatment -- much less
medications -- existed for relieving the artist's "madness." However,
the artist's convulsions puzzled doctors. Wolf cites several possible causes.
Van Gogh was notorious for tasting his paints, which contained turpentine and
could have caused convulsions. Also, to combat sleep difficulties, van Gogh was
known to put camphor in his pillow at night -- another cause of
And van Gogh drank the liqueur absinthe, "the drink of choice in Paris
for van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, and others," Wolf says. "An overdose of
absinthe causes neurons [in the brain] to fire like mad" -- again, causing