Madness in Art: Linking Creativity, Mental Illness and Breakdown in History of Art

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“No excellent soul is exempt from a mixture of madness.” Aristotle.

The link between creativity and mental health is a very difficult one to define and even harder to prove. Mental illness as long as history can record has been a taboo subject. It has always been something to be feared, hidden and ashamed of. However, displayed in the artistic form, whether fine art, prose, poetry, or musical composition it becomes acceptable. It becomes easy for the viewer to spectate and witness the mental decline of these creators. The psychological suffering becomes something that is no longer embodied by the physical being and is easy to view. But why is it that so many great artists suffer from a decline in mental health? Do Mental health issues drive the urge to be creative? Is creativity an outlet for the tormented mind?

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For centuries the link between creativity and “Madness” has captured the imagination. From Van Gogh slicing off his own ear, to Tracey Emins Bed displaying her mental breakdown the idea of the mad artist, crazed musician or tortured poet still today continues to hold a grip on the human imagination. Many studies have been conducted in an attempt to establish a link between Mental disorders and creativity. These studies however have many areas of confliction and difficulties. Such difficulties are:

  • Questioning whether certain creative professions are connected to higher levels of stress and psychological pressures.
  • Difficulty in defining terms like “creativity and madness”.
  • Today’s popular culture glorifying and excusing artists aberrant behavior.

What is madness?

The question of whether creativity and mental health disorders are related Is as old as art itself. It has long divided opinions of psychologists, theorists and historians. Aristotle wrote that the creative act was a natural event that conformed to natural law yet in contrast Plato claimed that a poet’s inspiration arose during moments of “divine madness”. As far back as the ancient Greeks it was believed to be a great divine madness that inspires creativity. Different from the madness such as melancholia or delirium these states of divine madness were believed to be produced by the gods. The god Apollo induced Prophetic madness enabling knowledge of the future. Dionysus through Ritual madness allowed emotional release. Love and love sickness were stimulated by Erotic madness induced by Eros or Aphrodite. And the Muse gave inspiration to poetic madness. It was believed that all creative acts, whether dance, art, writing philosophy or intellectual discovery was born from one of these forms of divine madness.

Throughout history the idea of the mad artist has compelled researchers to investigate this link between the creative mind and Mental health disorder. However, because of this fascination there have been far more studies conducted into the psychological imbalances in artists than those who work in more regular creative industries. Few would ever notice a study conducted into a hair dresser and how her mood swings effect the quality of cut and finish on her client’s hair, however the movie “Shine” which portrays the Pianist David Helfgott and his battle with mental illness received considerable notice. (The New York Times). The tortured artist haunted by personal demons, or visionary genius taunted by inner thoughts has always been a part of popular culture. But are Creative people really more prone to be born with or suffer mental illness than say an accountant or welder?

It would also seem that the artists who suffer “madness” or mental health issues have over the years been those whose work has been given a greater recognition. Artists and writers who kill themselves such as Van Gogh or Sylvia Plath who committed suicide by putting her head in a gas oven, become more captivating to the public and are often the subject of literary biographies. Artists and writers who live contented and well-adjusted lives such as mild-mannered Claude Monet have been equally prolific and talented as the “crazed” artists, however attract less attention. These artists suffering mental health problems have always proved far more captivating to the public (The New York Times).

Edward Munch is one example of an artist whose life was tormented by his mental health. Suffering anxiety and vivid hallucinations many of his paintings stem from this. Whist in Oslofjord, Norway the painter had a vivid and distressing vision. Looking out across the land he recalls how the world around him changed. “The sun began to set – suddenly the sky turned blood red, I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed and endless scream passing through nature”. It was from this hallucination that the artist found inspiration for one of the greatest masterpieces of all time, “The Scream”.

Munch throughout most of his life struggled with the stress and angst of the modern man. It is said that’s Munch paintings are a direct response and representation of this turmoil. The artist saw this suffering as a deep, driving and vital force behind his art. He wrote in his diary: “My fear of life is necessary to me, as is my illness. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art”. Though one of the most famous artists to experience the fine line between artistic talent and torment he is not the only one.

Vincent Van Gogh swayed heavily between madness and genius. Writing in 1888 to his brother Theo he declared: “I am unable to describe exactly what is the matter with me. Now and then there are horrible fits of anxiety, apparently without cause, or otherwise a feeling of emptiness and fatigue in the head… at times I have attacks of melancholy and of atrocious remorse”. During one of these episodes after an argument with his friend Paul Gauguin the artist sliced off his own ear, and later committed suicide.

The struggles of these artists and other creatives are still evident in today’s popular culture and society. This gives weight to the belief that those with creative personalities are more susceptible to a range of mental illness, including bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. The fascination with the “mad artist” is still as strong today as ever and an ever-growing body of research would suggest that there is merit in the concept of the mad artist. For decades the potential link between creativity and mental health disorder has fascinated psychologists. Even in the earliest of studies examining subjects from across all fields, literature, art and music, it was found that those with creative personalities had an unusually high record of mood effecting disorders. Charles Dickens, Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams were all known suffers of clinical depression, whilst Ernest Hemmingway, Leo Tolstoy and Virginia Woolf suffered from Bipolar disorder.

The work of American artist Jackson Pollock was often fueled by his alcoholism and depression. His sometimes-disturbing canvasses echo his emotional turmoil as shown in “Circumcision shown here'. Many aspects play a role in the causes of Mental Health disorder and for this question to be answered it must be investigated from all views. Genetics, Psychological, and Social. To examine the link between mental illness and creativity there are many factors to consider. The impact of nature and nurture, the impact of coming from a broken home, mental illness in close relatives, career choice, religious beliefs.

Scientific research

An article produced by the NHS in October 2012 set out to explore the link between creativity and mental illness, to examine this link they used a study published by BBC news. “Creativity is often part of a mental illness according to a study of more than a million people”. BBC News reported, “ancient issue of genius and madness is of interest to both public and doctors”.

As stated in the NHS Study looking at creativity and the link with mental illness, an attempt to find an answer to this long posed question of whether creatives are more prone to mental illness saw researchers funded by Swedish Medical Research Council and The Swedish Psychiatry Foundation, examine Swedish health records and used these to identify over one million people diagnosed with varying mental illnesses. They looked at the occurrence of creative occupation within this group and compared that to a matched sample of “healthy” people.

The BBC’s coverage of this research was accurate for the most part though the headline was rather misleading. It found that with the exception of bipolar disorder, overall, people in creative professions were no more likely to suffer from a psychiatric condition than anyone else. However, the quality of research into this question has often been poor and subject to bias. There was though one exception-writers. Writers were most likely more so than the general population to suffer a range of psychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia and depression. Writers were also more likely to commit suicide (named by one psychiatrist the “Sylvia Plath effect” after the writer who killed herself).

This study does not though explain the observed patterns, nor does it explain how or why, people with creative personalities may be more likely to suffer with mental health conditions. It is worth noting during this that researchers had to categorize people by “creative” profession. However, those who do not have a “creative job” can still have a creative personality, and also the researcher’s idea of what is “creative” may not be the same as anyone else’s.

The Swedish researchers were also interested in what is termed the “inverted U model”. This model questions whether there is an increased severity of symptoms up to a point beyond which it begins to diminish the creative abilities. For example, “German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche suffered a nervous breakdown in 1889 after which he produced no more coherent work”.

There is also an argument that any study on the association between creativity and mental health disorders also needs to examine the relatives of those afflicted by the mental illness. This being as many mental health conditions such as schizophrenia and bi polar are known to be affected by genetics. Research by this group however, suggested that people with these disorders and their relatives were over represented in creative occupations during the research. This study aimed to investigate if all psychiatric disorders are related to creativity or is it restricted to psychotic features. (psychotic features generally mean the presence of disordered thought patterns, delusions or hallucinations, Insert ref). It also aimed to investigate specifically if psychiatric illness is more prevalent in writers. This research was conducted using a study design called a nested case control study. within this type of study, each “case” (person with a mental health disorder) is matched for sex, age and other factors against a group of healthy controls, to measure a particular outcome, in this study it was creative ability.

The psychiatric and mental health disorders they included were:

  • Schizophrenia
  • Schizoaffective disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Drug abuse
  • Autism
  • ADHD
  • Anorexia nervosa

The research also investigated a number of completed suicides.

The researchers defined 'creative' as anyone in a scientific or artist occupation, including professional writing, Individuals reporting a creative occupation were considered creative. However, the researches provide little further detail of what were considered creative occupations. Basic analysis of the results of this study show that of 1,173,763 of the patients diagnosed with specific psychiatric disorders almost half suffered from depression. Of these patients:

  • Aside from bipolar, people in creative professions were no more likely to have a mental illness than those in the non-creative control group.
  • Those working in creative professions were considerably less likely than the controls to be diagnosed with schizophrenia, schizophrenia effective disorder, depression, anxiety, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, autism, ADHD or to have committed suicide.
  • One specific group, writers, were twice as likely to suffer from schizophrenia and bipolar as the controls. That were also more likely to suffer from eating disorder depression and to commit suicide.
  • Direct relatives of people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anorexia nervosa, and siblings of people with autism were more likely to work in creative occupations.

From this research, with the exception of bipolar disorders there was no link found between creative personality and having a psychiatric disorder. The findings from direct relatives (who share half their genes with affected cases) may support the ‘Inverted U model’ between psychiatric conditions and creativity. Definitions of creativity are always difficult to determine and this research relied on peoples occupations, as a proxy of ‘creativity’. Researchers considered “creative professions” as scientific and artistic occupations. These scientific occupations included those conducting research and teaching, but beyond writers there was no more explanation of what was considered an artistic occupation.

Artist Case Studies

Richard Dadd - 1817-1886

The paintings of Richard Dadd offer a valuable perspective into the affect of mental health and illness has upon art. The artist was clearly very ill, but did this illness contribute to his talent and make him a creative genius? Dadd was at first best known for his highly detailed Victorian Orientalist paintings. Having traveled through Europe the artist developed a fascination with the people and places he had visited. Early signs of his declining mental health can be seen by his obsessive compulsion for painting even the most minute detail within his work. The artist had a well off and happy start to life. The son of a chemist and well educated he was admitted to the Royal Academy of Art a rage 20 (Souter, 2012, p. 23).

Whilst at the academy the artist met William Powell Firth, August Egg and Henry O’Neil, these along with others founded the first group of British Artists to combine for greater strength (Greysmith, D., “Richard Dadd, The Castle of Seclusion”, p. 76). It was in July 1842 that Dadd was employed by Sir Thomas Philips as a draughtsman and they set off on a grand tour of Europe. It was towards the end of the trip whilst travelling through Egypt that the artists mental health began to rapidly decline. Dadd became violent and delusional believing himself to be receiving instruction from the Egyptian god Osiris (Aldridge 1974, Richard Dadd, p.22). It was initially believed that his condition was caused by sunstroke and sleep deprivation.

Returning to Britain in 1843 the artist wrote to a friend in England: “I have lain down at night with my imagination so full of vagaries that I have really doubted my own sanity” (Russel G. and Huddlestone S., Richard Dadd: The Patient The Artist and The Face of Madness 2015). During his return trip he expressed a desire to seek out and harm individuals, a desire he was never to fully execute.

On arriving home his family expressed concern for the artists mental state and took Dadd to Cobham in Kent where it as hoped he would recuperate. However, in August the same year he became disturbed. Incoherent babbling speech and bizarre beliefs troubled the artist. His delusional thoughts overcame him and convinced the Egyptian god Orisis was commanding him to do so he attacked and murdered his father (Alderidge 1974, Richard Dadd, p. 24). Fleeing police Dadd traveled to France, on route he attacked and attempted to kill a fellow passenger. Searched by police he was found to have list of people who he believed must die and told the police that he had received a message from the stars commanding him to hunt out and kill these people (Beveridge A, Richard Dadd The Artist and the Asylum).

Arrested and returned to England the artist admitted the murder of his father claiming that the devil had possessed his fathers body. He was remanded in custody at Maidstone Jail to stand trial at Chatham Magistrates Court. The Reporter of the local newspaper described the artist as having a “wildness in his manner” (Kentish Gazette, 13 August 1844). Dadd was however never to stand trial and was found to be insane rather than guilty of murder. He was sentenced and committed to Beltham (Bedlam) Hospital then later transferred to the newly built abroad or Hospital (Charley, 2006). Dadd one of 7 children was suspected by Doctors to be suffering schizophrenia, a condition which two of the artists siblings also suffered (Alderidge 1974, Richard Dadd, p. 22).

During his time at Bedlam and Broadmoor hospitals Dadds aggressive behavior continued, Attacking fellow patients the artist was classified as a danger to others. However as part of the authorities new therapy the artist was not punished but instead given a considerable amount of freedom. Given his own art studio and despite being at risk he was given access to tools such as knives for creating carvings, he was also allowed free access to the grounds of Broadmoor where he would spend time observing other patients.

Dadds case attracted considerable public and press attention. During his time in hospital he gained great notoriety as an artist. Whilst there is no doubt that Dadd is indeed a creative genius there is however questions that arise. Was Dadd a well known artist who attracted fascination due to his mental health disorder or were the public fascinated by the artists crimes and then captivated by the press release of his paintings? Had Dadd not been a patient at one of the worlds best known mental institutions would the public have ever discovered his art? The public and press had a great sympathy for the artist. He is often described as being sad and unhappy. One piece says “He has always been considered a young man of a most mild disposition and had ever exhibited the warmest and most affectionate attachment to his father (Kentish Gazette, 19 September 1843).

Dadds highly and obsessively detailed paintings received much acclaim during his life. The press and public alike were fascinated as people today still are by the romance and mystery of the mad artist. The artist who’s only escape from the bleak asylum life was to paint depictions of mythical imps and sprites and highly detailed memories of his travels. However following the artists death their was a decline in the popularity of his work. Was it that Dadds paintings had gone out of fashion or simply that his tragic story itself was more exciting to the public and press than his paintings? There was a revival of interest in Dadds paintings in the 1960’s when the Nascent anti Psychiatry movement saw Dadd as a heroic survivor of psychiatry (Thomas, Richard Dadd: The Artist and the Asylum published online on the Art of Psychiatry blog 18/02/2012). Once aging this interest in the artists work was not purely because of his artistic talent but linked to his mental condition. “We as are viewers are transfixed by Dadds fantastical paintings but not because he had a mental illness but because they are nothing like the leaden Victorian art of the day” (Jonathan Jones The Guardian).

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Madness in Art: Linking Creativity, Mental Illness and Breakdown in History of Art. (2023, February 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 12, 2024, from
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