“Now I Understand What You Tried To Say To Me.”

001This is the crucial lyric underpinning Don McLean`s “Vincent”, his paean to Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh has become the archetype of the misunderstood artist, which has now developed into something of a cliché. We no longer view the art or the artist as separate from this archetype and consequently dangerous myths about mental health continually abound.

McLean instead decides to focus upon the work he created and pays tribute to the social messages that lie within his art. He singles out “Starry Night” for its technical brilliance as a painting with a striking palette of blue and grey. It is often forgotten that he was an artistic innovator in regards to his technique, colour and perspective. However in his lifetime his paintings did not sell and he only survived partly due to the largesse of his brother Theo.


As the song says now we “understand” the stories behind each painting. His first painting was “The Potato Eaters”. This was his tribute to the Dutch peasants he befriended as a young missionary priest.

This stark portrait of poverty was regarded with perplexity and even distaste at the time, but only now we can see that he helped to illuminate the lives of a once invisible people. These people were finally allowed to be seen with humanity and dignity, and are immortalised in our memories for ever as “the weathered faces lined in pain soothed by Vincent`s loving hand”.


Many of his paintings are portraits of the rural poor, “the ragged men in ragged clothes”. People “with eyes that watch the world and can`t forget”. Van Gogh`s portraits stood out from the more traditional portraits of artists` rich patrons and benefactors. It shows that he had a real affinity with the poorer members of society to the extent that for a time as a young priest he sold off all of his possessions and lived amongst them.

His work is now overshadowed by the tragic events that occurred in the last two years of his life, the breakdowns, the committals, the self-harming incident in which he sliced off his ear, and his suicide in which he died a slow and agonising death from a bullet wound. All of this feeds into the perverse and pervasive myth of the so-called “mad genius”. This is simply an example of a dehumanising way of labelling someone and it reveals a misinformed and out of date depiction of mental illness.


During the late nineteenth century mental illnesses were poorly understood and there was much more stigma surrounding the sufferer than today. Van Gogh`s family knew that he had mental health difficulties but they were powerless and did not know how to deal with them. In our modern understanding we realise that there are multiple factors-both genetic and environmental that cause such difficulties.

However the stigma has not gone away. Misinformation about psychiatry and psychiatric illness still abound. There is no other branch of medicine which has created so much confusion in the general public and there is no other strata of illness which merits the same disapproval from them. Unlike other illnesses and disabilities, people with mental health problems are often judged according to their character, or moral questions are posited to them. Consequently a culture of blame surrounds them as if they are totally responsible for their illness owing to some kind of innate turpitude or personal weakness.

The truth is this, psychiatry is a real branch of medicine which deals with conditions of the head, brain and nervous system. It is vital to also point out that there is actually no difference between “physical” and “mental” health. Mental health IS physical health! As I mentioned earlier, these are disorders of the head, brain and nervous system. It is slightly different to neurology which deals with “organic” diseases (like brain tumours, epilepsy, migraine etc.) Psychiatry is different because it deals with “functional” diseases (like depression, psychosis etc.) There is a general consensus that psychiatric illness is caused by a malfunction in the brain and the chemicals and neurotransmitters are faulty. Once people are aware of all of this there will be greater understanding towards these problems and hopefully sufferers will be seen as “human” again.

My original point still stands, Vincent Van Gogh was a great artist with a tremendous perception. He showed great empathy towards the poor people living on subsistence and allowed us an insight into their lives. He also suffered from a mental illness which was misunderstood and lead to his untimely death, but we should not let that fact overshadow his great art.

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