Starry, Starry Night: Van Gogh and the Bipolar Connection

The cover image for this blog is inspired by Vincent van Gogh’s famous painting “The Starry Night.” The title of this post is inspired by Don McLean’s biographical song “Vincent.” For years the name Vincent van Gogh has been associated with bipolar disorder. The International Bipolar Foundation designates the birthday of Van Gogh (March 30) as World Bipolar Day. 

Van Gogh had many of the tell tale signs of bipolar disorder. He wrote long, incoherent letters. He had sleep problems. He had religious obsessions, serving as a missionary. He had romantic entanglements. His productivity was impressive (some 2,100 works of art). He drank and smoked excessively. 

Was bipolar disorder really the source of his Van Gogh’s troubles? His psychotic episodes were short, which tends to rule out schizophrenia. Other possibilities have been offered in recent years to explain his illness. Lead exposure will cause similar symptoms. But did he have a lifelong exposure to lead? Syphilis is also mentioned in connection to Van Gogh’s health problems, but he didn’t live long enough to have developed neurosyphilis mental disorder. It’s certain that Van Gogh suffered from numerous conditions related to bipolar disorder, such as anxiety. And he had what we’d call comorbidities today.

In any case, Van Gogh is a symbol and a source of inspiration for us with the disorder. One Internet observer has noted that each list of notable historical figures who may have had the disorder or contemporary celebrities with it seems like a recruiting list for the “Bipolar Team.” An impressive team it is. Besides Van Gogh we have: Plato, Michelangelo, Isaac Newton, Martin Luther, Ludwig van Beethoven, John Keats, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, J.P. Morgan, Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, Jackson Pollock, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Sylvia Plath, Edgar Allan Poe.

Maybe we just want the list to be impressive to further the cause of bipolar acceptance.

With the exception of ALS and Lou Gehrig, no disease has such a connection with such talent. Since Van Gogh lived so long ago and had no heirs, we can use his name with no legal implications. I can use his painting as a cover image without committing a copyright infringement. I don’t foresee having Jackson Pollack art for my cover image anytime soon.