8 Artists Who Suffered From Mental Illness

People taking photos of a self-portrait of Van Gogh on the wall of a museum

Stale Grut / Unsplash

The tortured artist has been a recurring character in fiction and in real life. Countless painters, composers, writers and musicians have suffered from depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, prompting people to ask the question, are artists more likely to suffer from mental illness?

The research says yes. A 2012 study followed 1.2 million patients and their relatives and found that bipolar disorder is more common in individuals with artistic professions including dancers, photographers and authors. (Scientists were also found to have the same link.) And authors were more likely to face other psychiatric diseases like depression, anxiety, substance abuse and schizophrenia. And sadly, writers were also about 50 percent more likely to commit suicide than the population at large.

The pool to choose from is vast, but here are eight artists who suffered while creating art that millions have enjoyed.

1. Ludwig van Beethoven

Portrait of Beethoven painted on a wall
Bernhard_Staerck / Pixabay

Beethoven was prone to bouts of energetic highs and suicidal lows.

Legendary composer Ludwig van Beethoven is reported to have suffered from depression and, some have even speculated, bipolar disorder. That, of course, is in addition to his alcoholism, a condition that eventually led to his death due to liver damage. In the book "Diagnosing Genius: The Life and Death of Beethoven," author François Martin Mai notes that Beethoven showed sudden changes of mood going from energetic and driven to depressed and suicidal, showing the highs and lows associated with bipolar disorder.

2. Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch and his painting "The Scream"
Anders Beer Wilse; Edvard Munch / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

Edvard Munch credited his mental illness for inspiring many of his creative works, including his most famous painting, 'The Scream.'

Painter of the famous and emotionally charged work, "The Scream," (above) Edvard Munch is said to have suffered from depression, agoraphobia, a nervous breakdown and to have had hallucinations, one of which inspired "The Scream." Mental illness also ran in his family, most notably with his sister. The Norwegian artist said of the relationship between his mental illness and his work, "My fear of life is necessary to me, as is my illness. Without anxiety and illness, I am a ship without a rudder ... my sufferings are part of my self and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art." He wrote in one of his journals, "Illness, insanity and death were the black angels that kept watch over my cradle and accompanied me all my life."

3. Vincent van Gogh

Self-portrait of Vincent Van Gogh framed and hanging on a white wall
Alina Grubnyak / Unsplash 

Historians have long theorized about Vincent van Gogh's various mental illnesses.

Many have guessed at the root of van Gogh's mental illness. The painter has been said to have suffered from depression (perhaps manic depression), bipolar disorder, hallucinations and episodes of derangement as well as epilepsy. He ultimately committed suicide in 1890 at the age of 37. Over time, some researchers have blamed his conditions on his love of absinthe, while others have speculated he had acute intermittent porphyria, a hereditary metabolic disorder that could account for his many symptoms as well as his family history of mental illness. Whatever the cause, van Gogh led a difficult life plagued by depression that ultimately resulted in his death.

4. David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace speaking at a microphone and podium
Steve Rhodes / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

David Foster Wallace, best known for his novel "Infinite Jest" and considered one of the foremost literary talents of his generation, tragically committed suicide by hanging himself on his patio in 2008. According to the New Yorker, a publication his words appeared in many times, Wallace suffered from a deep depression, a condition he had first been diagnosed with while in college at Amherst. Three years before his death, Wallace said about suicide in his famous commencement speech at Kenyon College, "This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger."

5. Georgia O'Keeffe

Georgia O'Keeffe photographed while sketching, side-by-side with O'Keeffe's 'Series 1, No. 8' painting
Alfred Stieglitz; Georgia O'Keeffe / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

Because of books by biographers Hunter Drohojowska-Philip and Roxana Robinson, we know that, at age 46, Georgia O'Keeffe was admitted to Doctors Hospital in New York City after suffering from anxiety and depression. Salon reports that O'Keeffe had weeping spells and went periods without eating or sleeping. The famous painter was said to be struggling due to not having completed a mural at Radio City Music Hall, leading to her breakdown.

6. Sylvia Plath

Flowers in front of Sylvia Plath's headstone
UncleBucko / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0 

Sylvia Plath, known as one of the early confessional poets, famously detailed her depression and told her story on the page, both in novel form with "The Bell Jar" and in her poems. At 20 years old, the Smith College student stole her mother's sleeping pills and crawled under her home's porch to die. However, she survived, her body vomiting up the pills and ending the 40-hour police search tasked with finding her. After the attempt, she was placed in McLean Hospital for six months and received electric shock therapy. In February of 1963, 10 years after attempting suicide with the sleeping pills, Plath succeeded in killing herself. She made breakfast for her children, wrote a note for the housekeeper with a doctor's phone number on it and put her head in the oven.

7. Francisco Goya

Statue of Francisco Goya
Juanedc / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

In 1792, Francisco Goya, 46 years old, came down with a mysterious illness, causing him to suffer from hearing loss, headaches, dizziness, issues with his vision and paresis (or weakness) in one of his arms. Soon after, his physical issues turned into mental symptoms including depression, hallucinations, delirium and weight loss. Scholars have suggested that Goya's illnesses likely influenced his later art, which featured some pretty dark material. Take for example, "Saturn Devouring His Son." If you click on that, be warned:The title does a good job of describing the visuals.

8. Anne Sexton

Anne Sexton's grave marker shared with George Sexton and Joan Palmer
Midnightdreary / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

It isn't often we get to learn about the inner mind of a poet through anything more than poetry. Biographer Diane Wood Middlebrook was given access to more than 300 audiotapes of Anne Sexton's therapy sessions with psychiatrist Dr. Martin T. Orne for her book, "Anne Sexton." We learn that it's because of her therapy sessions that she started to write. Sexton was extremely depressed and had suicidal tendencies when she started to see Orne. He recommended that Sexton write down her feelings to help her deal with her emotions, something he also recommended to others. According to the New York Times, Sexton almost immediately became a hit.

Unfortunately, Sexton's life was filled with emotional ups and downs. She suffered from postpartum depression after her first child was born, had her first mental breakdown and was then admitted to a psychiatric hospital, a place she went back to numerous times when she needed help managing her symptoms. Sexton had another child, and then another breakdown that led to her hospitalization. Ultimately, in 1974 she committed suicide by asphyxiating herself with carbon monoxide in her garage. She had also been good friends with Sylvia Plath.