Illness as Inspiration

3 min read

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 WebMD.

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 says.

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 fast."

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 convulsions.

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 convulsions.

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."