Chapter 1

Creativity hurts

1.1. Those who make the legend live

The number of mad artists is ambiguous, but impressive. The following list mentions just some creative people, who were mad (although the nature of this subject makes absolute proof impossible) :


Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)

self-taught Dutch painter, breakdown and institutionalisation 1888, suicide 1890

Edvard Munch (1863-1944)

Norwegian painter, psychotic genius, used paint directly as therapy

Camille Claudel (1864 - 1943)

gifted French sculptor, companion of Rodin, committed to an asylum by force in 1913 where she remained until her death


Johannes Hölderlin (1770-1843)

1802 first signs of mental disturbance, 2 years sick at home, institutionalised and later released as incurable, cared for by a carpenter couple until his death

August Strindberg(1849 - 1912)

Swedish playwright and novelist , childhood marked by emotional insecurity , poverty and religious fanaticism, became addicted to alcohol, increasing mental instability caused his religious conversion

Guy de Maupassent (1850-1893)

French writer, since 1891 increasing mental disorder

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)

British writer, continuously fighting depression, suicide attempts(1904, 1913) and repeated breakdowns, committed suicide in ‘41

Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)

American writer and poet, suffered from severe depressions and committed suicide in 1963


Isaac Newton (1642 - 1727)

English physicist and mathematician , famous especially for the development of calculus, Newton suffered a number of serious nervous breakdowns


Robert Schumann 1810-1856

German composer, since 1850 suffered from depression and hallucination


Friedrich Nietzsche 1844 - 1900

German philosopher, breakdown in 1889 then institutionalisation for one year, attended by mother and sister until his death

There are three artists in the list whose cases are of particular interest for this thesis. They are firstly Vincent van Gogh - as the classic example of a mad genius , Virginia Woolf - who was incapable of writing during a depression , and finally Edvard Munch - an artist, who used painting as therapy .

Born in 1853 in Holland, Vincent van Gogh gave up school at the age of 15. Although showing an early interest art, he worked in an office and as a preacher, before he choose to work artistically in 1880. A number of events led to his first mental breakdown in 1888, where he cut off his ear. After that he attended mental institutions and after a short period of apparent peacefulness shot himself in 1890. During most of his life he suffered periods of depression and heavy drinking. He was diagnosed as 'suffering from acute mania . . . subject to epileptic fits . . . by Dr.Peyron at St.Paul's. This diagnosis has since been strongly criticised by numerous psychiatrists, suggesting instead a diagnosis of schizophrenia. V.Gogh's life, work and illness has promoted a vast number of biographies, but the facts remain surprisingly cloudy, which has helped to merely glorify the myth of the ' maddened genius'

Virginia Woolf was born in 1882 . When she was only 13 years old, her sister Julia died resulting in Virginia's first nervous breakdown. In 1904 Virginia's father died and three months later she suffered a second breakdown and attempted to kill herself . In 1912 Virginia married Leonard Woolf but in September 1913 attempted a second suicide. Since then she suffered constantly from fits of depression, diseases and several breakdowns, until she took her life in desperation in 1941. In his autobiography, Leonard Woolf describes Virginia's fear of criticism as so great that it directly caused fits of depression and rage. For Virginia Woolf madness was not the hideout of a genius mind, on the contrary, it endangered her very existence as a person and an artist ': . . . whenever she finished a book, a condition of mental exhaustion settled in and for weeks she was in danger of collapsing. ' Virginia Woolf is a classic example of a truly inspired, but very ill artist. Her illness never was the source, but always a direct result of creativity.

The Norwegian painter Edvard Munch , born in 1863 , started painting when he was only 17. Suffering and death cast a shadow over his childhood, when his beloved sister Sophie, and soon after his mother , died of tuberculosis. His father was a religious fanatic and his elder sister suffered from schizophrenia. He wrote ' . . . sickness and insanity were the black angels which guarded my cradle '. During his life he painted some 1,700 canvases, most of which dealt with his painful memories and failed love affairs. He introduced the idea of a visual biography in ' The Freeze of Life ' ,in 1893 . He obsessively returned to the same themes again and again, attempting to cure his pain. This method appears to have enabled him to control his mental instability.

There are a surprisingly large number of aspects to be considered regarding the connection between creativity and madness. But there are three main questions :

  • Does creativity induce insanity?
  • Does insanity induce creativity?
  • Is there any other connection (i.e. physical, social, etc.).