March 27, 2021

Van Gogh’s Anxiety, Depression and three dozen Self-Portraits

The works of a world-famous artist Vincent Van Gogh (1853–1890), are acknowledged by many to be priceless masterpieces that today could make him a fortune. However, during his lifetime, he was a pauper who relied on his brother’s financial and emotional support, which was necessary to ease Vincent’s mental illness sufferings and allow for his creativity. His career as a painter spanned across the last ten years of his life, producing 36 self-portraits since 1886, indicating excessive self- awareness as a symptom of depression which intensified in his final years.

Self-focused attention and mental health

Vincent Van Gogh’s numerous self-portraits are the equivalent of modern-day people posting selfies on various social media sites, where they become the central object of attention. Van Gogh’s works of art were not rated as something worthy or even interesting the same way many people today think they are not valuable members of society. Low self-esteem makes people fight for attention and acceptance from others who appreciate and make them feel more valuable. Psychology as a science of mind and behaviour can help us understand to what extent taking selfies would negatively influence our mental health.

Vincent’s creativity in mids of his bankruptcy

Van Gogh’s unpopularity during his lifetime made him want to “fit in”, just like people posting selfies desire the social acceptance of their peer group. Van Gogh’s self-portraits reflect his need for social approval and endorsement of his artworks which he did not sell. His professional career seemed like a hobby with no future perspectives, making him question the reason for living and the meaning of his work that did not bear any fruits, at least not immediately. In one of many letters to Theo van Gogh, Vincent pours his heart out to his brother and friend:

“I can do nothing about it if my paintings don’t sell. The day will come, though, when people will see that they’re worth more than the cost of the paint and my subsistence, very meagre in fact, that we put into them. I have no other wish nor other concern regarding money or finances than in the first place not to have debts. But my dear brother, my debt is so great that when I’ve paid it, which I think I’ll succeed in doing, the hardship of producing paintings will, however, have taken my entire life, and it will seem to me that I haven’t lived.

The only thing is that perhaps the production of paintings will become a little more difficult for me, and as far as the number goes, there won’t always be as many. The fact that they don’t sell now makes me anxious that you’re suffering too, but it would be of little concern to me if you didn’t become too hard up by my bringing nothing in” Letter to Theo van Gogh. Arles, 25 October 1888

Three dozen portraits as a symptom of Vincent’s depression

Undoubtedly, Vincent’s anxiety connected with his financial situation and that he constantly relied on his brother’s support because his art did not sell. But how his poor mental health links with 36 self-portraits he painted in just four years before passing away? Could Vincent, who did not benefit from his work, want to feel valued by focusing the viewers’ attention on himself? There is nothing wrong with painting self-portraits which have been a common practice by many artists wanting the future generations to commemorate them as people who had a significant impact on art and culture.

However, Vincent’s frequent self portrayals with a grim look on his face suggest a high probability of narcissism, thus increasing the risk of being depressed. Another reason why he painted himself so many times could be a lack of money. Perhaps Vincent wanted to keep himself in the practice of composing portraits of people but, due to poverty, could not afford anyone to act as a model; therefore painted himself.

Nevertheless, the matter is that Vincent Van Gogh painted three dozens of self-portraits while suffering from anxiety and depression, which eventually became the cause of his self-inflicted death. In the letter to his brother, Vincent expresses his desire for the impossible – to sell his work. His anxiety came from him overthinking about himself and his life situation, which was reasonable due to his financial difficulty, but worrying about his painting that was not selling did not overcome his negative self-image.

Vincent was concerned about whether or not painting was his true calling in life after trying to devote his time and efforts to different occupations without any valuable accomplishments. He was also not successful in the business side of his artistic endeavour he started at the age of 27, which increased vulnerability in his troubled mind, making him more self-centred and prone to depression.

The transition of Vincent’s self-portrayal from 1886 to 1890

The Dutch painter began composing his image onto canvas in Paris – a popular destination for many nineteenth-century artists. In 1886 he started a short but intense journey of producing numerous self-portraits that would eventually prove his depressive symptoms. In 1888 Vincent moved to France and worked in Arles, where he cut off his whole ear and gave it to a prostitute. Four years later, his mental illness progressed to the point of despair, causing him to take his life by shooting himself in the chest.

Although Vincents used bright and vibrant colours in some of his self-portraits which might suggest his cheerful attitude did not reflect his authentic approach to reality. He never smiles in his portraits but instead looks sad and comes across as gloomy in appearance.

His, considered to be the last self- portrait, is worthy of attention for some unique reasons. Vincent usually depicted himself as having a beard; however, he is without a beard in his last painting, which after an x-ray, revealed a study of a nude figure beneath the paint. He then gave the portrait to his mother as a birthday gift, suggesting Vincent’s way of saying his final “goodbye” to the world into which his mother brought him naked.