Illness as Inspiration
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
But at least one professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago
reels at what he calls a stereotype -- the mental illness-inspiration link.
"That's folklore," Randy Vick, MS, tells WebMD. "Creative people
have diabetes, cancer, mental illness. It's a kind of discrimination, a
romanticizing of mental illness. It doesn't hold up. People in any field have
those tremendous bursts of energy, whether they are carpenters, farmers, or
artists. It's a terrible stereotype that's not doing anyone a favor."
Whether medication is detrimental to the creative process is controversial,
Rothe tells WebMD. "Some believe a little creativity is lost. ... But the
artist who becomes too manic-depressive, too psychotic, or depressed is not
functional. The idea with medication is to bring them to the point where they
can function but still retain their creativity."