Free Madness AND Genius: An Analysis Of Van Gogh’s Life AND Works Research Paper Example

Type of paper: Research Paper

Topic: Vincent Van Gogh, Psychology, Family, Personality, Art, Society, Theory, Ego

Pages: 9

Words: 2475

Published: 2021/03/25


“Starry, starry night, paint your palette blue and grey. Look out on a summer's day; with eyes that know the darkness in my soul.” (McLean, 1970).
The above lyrics was cited from the ‘70’s phenomenal hit of Don McLean’s song entitled, “Vincent,” but very notable to people as “Starry, Starry Night.” According to the official website of Don McLean, the creation of the lyrics of “Vincent” was due to McLean’s interest in antiques and as he studied Van Gogh’s works, he began to strum his guitar and the music was created (McLean, 2007). Vincent van Gogh was probably one of the most famous Post-Impressionist painters in the Netherlands. He was a genius and a madman at the same time. Because of this, most of his artworks are famed across the world due to its beautiful appearance and tragic history. Vincent van Gogh was a notable painter who also had a madness lurking within him. Van Gogh’s gloomy personality was the result of the rejection, poverty, and isolation that he experienced during his lifetime. As a carte blanche, this paper will analyze the personality of Vincent van Gogh based from the literary evidences drawn from his letters, biography, as well on his letters. The paper will begin with an introduction to give the reader an overview about the topic. Next will be a literature review of van Gogh’s life; from birth to death. In addition, van Gogh’s personality will be examined closely based on the scholarship made by Allport about the basic dimension of the human personality. Van Gogh’s personality will be further analyzed in the light of Freudian psychoanalysis, Maslow’s Humanistic theory, Behavioral Theory and Skinner’s explanation about van Gogh’s personality. Before the conclusion the paper will compare and contrast the four perspectives as a whole. Last page will serve as the conclusion of the paper which will summarize the claims stated herein as well as some commentaries about the artist and his way of life.
Vincent Willem van Gogh was the son of Reverend Theodorus van Gogh and his wife Anna Carbentus van Gogh, a daughter of the Carbentus clan, a prominent Dutch family since the since the 16th century. The name Vincent van Gogh was very common amongst the men of the van Gogh household. In fact, the founder of the van Gogh clan was originally named ‘Vincent van Gogh’ born in 1674-1746. The second generation descendants of the original van Gogh was named David van Gogh (1697) whilst the third generation of the van Gogh men was named Jan van Gogh (1722-1796). The fourth ancestor was named Johannes van Gogh (1763-1840) whilst the fifth generation patriarch of the van Gogh clan was also named after the Vincent van Gogh, the Great. Vincent Willem van Gogh, the man who painted the famous Potato Eaters and the Starry Starry Night was the seventh generation and the third among the van Gogh men to inherit the name of their great-great grandfather (Auden, 1961; p. 6; Naifeh and White-Smith, 2011). Vincent van Gogh was born in March 30, 1852 in the quaint historic, old town of Groot-Zundert. According to Greenberg and Jordan (2001), the Vincent that the world knew today who painted the famous Starry Starry Night was actually a second ‘Vincent van Gogh’ of the family. The first Vincent was born premature on the same date. The van Gogh family still dispirited over the loss of the first ‘Vincent’ became joyful when the second son was not unharmed and in fact a healthy baby boy (Greenberg and Jordan, 2001). The Reverend named him after his first son as a memento of the first van Gogh. As a young boy, Vincent was shy and silent. He rarely speaks to anyone aside from his best buddy, Theo van Gogh who was also his second brother. The van Gogh’s was a middle class family and most of them had spent their childhood under the tutelage of a governess instead of the school. At an early age, the young Vincent excelled in drawings and took a great interest in studying Theology like his father. Unfortunately for him, his mother Anna did not approved of his chosen path of painting and studying as a clergyman and dismissed the idea as ridiculous to the van Gogh clan (Greenberg and Jordan, 2001; Naifeh and White-Smith, 2001; Auden, 1961). From the start Vincent van Gogh experienced a normal life of a child; he played with cats, climbed tall tree branches. Vincent was a silent child and displayed some of his talents in drawing and religious interests; some writers and scholars believed that perhaps van Gogh was destined for a life of misery and solitude. While he stored many letters from Theo, he seldom communicated with his mother (Kleiner, 2014). Records of his first interactions with his mother provide the modern scholars with the portrait of the artist’s life.
“As time passed, she rejected him often and incomprehension gave way to impatience, shame, and anger. Vincent’s mother never understood her son’s talents in drawing and religious interests. Instead of supporting, she backed away from him and rejected his artistic profession” (Naifeh and White-Smith, 2001:11).
“Starry, Starry Night, paint your palette blue and grey. Look out on a summer’s day with eyes that know the darkness in my soul. Shadows on the hills, sketch the trees and the daffodils. Catch the breeze and the winter chills, in colors on the snowy linen land” (McLean, 1970).
Vincent van Gogh ended his life in July 27, 1890 with a gunshot to the chest. Although this fact was still disputed because some claims have arisen regarding the murder of the artist, which according to some accounts consider his friend and co-artist Paul Gauguin as a murdered. Today, his artworks are widely known than any of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters. The most expensive painting sold was his painting The Portrait of Dr. Gachet, the physician who took care of him in the asylum during his final years.
The early 19th century psychologist Allport studied the ‘traits’ and based from his analysis, he stated that trait is a “general and focalized neuropsychic system unique to the person with the ability to render many stimuli functionally equivalent, and to initiate and guide consistent (equivalent) forms of adaptive and expressive behaviors” (Allport, 1937, p. 295, qtd from Barkhuus, 1999, p. 5). For the analysis of traits, Allport divided them into three sub-categories: common traits and individual traits are the characteristics of an individual which serves as a blueprint of their personality making them different against other people. Traits are the one which governs the behavior to make it permanent. Traits are the notable characteristics of a person which makes them unique. In the case of Vincent van Gogh, his brother Theo noted that his suffering could have been the result of his ‘fanatic heart’ wherein he gives everything that he can in order to gain satisfaction (Naifeh and White-Smith, 2011). Similarly, it was also reported that the traits of Vincent van Gogh as a ‘fanatic’ often made him suffer. Scholar Bradley Collins also noted that van Gogh’s extreme self-deprivation shocked his family and this made some scholars to consider him as a saint because of the way he lived. His passion towards the art was one of the notable traits of van Gogh. But unfortunately, his cardinal trait went beyond the border and it became masochism. According to his Latin tutor Mendes da Costa, he described Vincent as a child capable of hurting himself for the sake of religion and beliefs.
“whenever Vincent felt that his thoughts had stayed further than they should have, he took a cudgel to bed with him and belabored his back with it; and whenever he was convinced that he had forfeited the privilege of passing the night the night in his bed, he slunk out of the house unobserved at night, and then, when he came back and found the door double-locked, was forced to go and lie on the floor of a little wooden shed without a bed or even a blanket. He preferred to do this in winter to make his self-inflicted punishment more severe.” (Collins, 2004, p. 8).
Furthermore, along with his masochistic attitude, one of his central traits is that he is kind, caring, and passionate towards his work. Evidence of his kindness was the fact that he still showed kindness towards his mother even though she constantly rejected him and his artworks (Naifeh and White-Smith, 2001:11). Aside from this van Gogh was also a sensitive man and easily hurt when others rejected him.
“Vincent never really understood his mother’s rejection and often times he lashed to her stating that she was a ‘hard-hearted woman of a soured love’” (Naifeh and White-Smith, 2001: 12).
Van Gogh also showed stubbornness and compassion towards other people. When he painted The Potato Eaters, Vincent felt the deep sorrow and suffering of the people and the portraits’ dark aura was purposely drawn by the artist to express his sympathy towards them. Another instance of his compassionate attitude was when he felt sorrow for the prostitute in doing their dirty work in order to live. As a token of appreciation for this, van Gogh sketched a picture of a prostitute slumped down on her knees. He put the word ‘sorrow’ on the right side of the paper and wrote his name at the lower left (Auden, 1961). Stubbornness was also another trait of van Gogh that makes him very interesting unlike the other artist. According to his brother Theo, there was something peculiar about his [Vincent] that makes anyone either love him or hate him. Despite the constant rejection of his mother and the society, still Vincent made himself follow his desires (Naifeh and White-Smith, 2001). The Post-Impressionist society rejected his works because it looks pitiful compared to the works made by Claude Monet, the French who lead the Impressionism movement in Europe. When Sigmund Freud spearheaded the psychoanalytic movement, scholars have used Freud’s model of personality to analyze famous people. Freud built his theory of personality based from three components: id, ego, and the superego. According to Freud, “Id (Latin: ‘it’) was mostly based on the basic drives which are unconscious and demand immediate gratification.” (Macionis, Nancarrow, and Gerber, 1994; p. 135). Ego or “I” in Latin represents one’s self which according to Stewart-Roberts (2010; p. 31) subject to the outside forces of the society. Macionis et al., (1994; p. 135) also classified the ‘ego’ as “the person’s continues efforts to balance the innate pleasure seeking drives with the demands of the society.” Lasly, the human mind is subject to the forces of the ‘superego’ which means the highest form of judgment or simply the conscience. The conscience is sometimes equivalent to the personal court room of the mind because it analyzes whether an action is right or wrong. Van Gogh’s id is his innate passion towards art which caused overwhelming positive thoughts which made him energetic and inspired. This is what Theo van Gogh points out when he said that his brother was a fanatic at heart. His paintings were the visual record of his personality, of what he sees in his environment. To him, the artwork serves as his diary. According to Naifeh and White-Smith (2011; p. 4) his brother [Theo] tried to control Vincent’s brush stating that he should use less paint and apply it thinly on his canvas. Another critic examined his artwork and considered it as the painting of a “sick mind.” However, van Gogh’s fascination towards thick coatings of color was due to the influence of Eastern artworks specifically the Japanese wood block prints that he brought from France. The characteristics of woodblock prints often show bright and lavish colorings. Van Gogh’s ego was his self, innocent and melancholic. The society in which he lived in was not yet ready to accept his modern views in painting; therefore he lived the rest of his life in extreme poverty. According to Stewart-Roberts:
“If a thin, transparent sheet of ice were a metaphor of his ego, the blistering wind above would represent the external world, the fathoms beneath would represent his artistic instinct, and the foot that cracks the ice would be his conscience.” (Stewart-Roberts, 2010; p. 31).
Freud posits that the superego was the combination of the moral and cultural beliefs instilled to the person’s mind upon his birth. The super-ego acts as a final judge above all conduct performed by man. For instance, van Gogh conducted a Bible study with prostitutes at the brothel and suddenly stumbled into a passage in the Bible stating that: “And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.” (Matt. 5:30 King James Version). The super-ego judges a person conduct and forms a basis regarding the proper behavior in the society. His ego cannot handle the conflicts/stresses caused by his Id and Superego. The ego used up a lot of his psycho energy to act as a peacemaker, thus lack of psycho energy to perform normally (to be healthy).Moreover, mental illness is a failure to resolve those conflicts. Van Gogh’s first psychotic attack occurred when he was still in Arles. He was already thirty-five at that time and due to the passage from the gospel of St. Matthew, he chopped off his ear from his head, wrapped it into paper and gave it to the prostitute. The act committed by van Gogh symbolizes his innocent nature and the values instilled by his clergy self; probably he gave his ear to the prostitute because it causes him great offense when he hears lewd talking. He indirectly tells the prostitute to do follow the gospel by removing their body part that causes them great offense. Furthermore, Stewart-Roberts (2010) believed that it was the fault of his Christian views that his mind gave in to the mental illness because his ego cannot stand the torments of the id and his super-ego. As a result, he ended up trapped in his own genius. Moreover, Maslow’s Humanistic theory of personality can also be used in explaining van Gogh’s manic attacks. Abraham Maslow believed that as rational creatures, humans tend to strive for self-realization. Humanistic theorists argued that every person tend to see the world in their own light (Nicholas, 2003; p. 231) and so is van Gogh. Van Gogh viewed the world bitterly due to his sad experiences from his family, from the society, and from himself because he failed to fit to the required criteria. He was unique, genius, and a brilliant artist who was left impoverished simply because the people lacked the understanding of his art and they are not yet ready to accept his modernized style. Behavioral theory explains that the personality is the result of interaction of the society versus the human. B.F. Skinner’s who performed his famous box experiment once stated that unwanted behaviors can be eliminated due to punishment whilst the acceptable behaviors can be retained through rewards. Van Gogh’s manic depression was caused by the rejection of the society and his parents to his works of art claiming that it his personality was sick because of the ideas he produces.
“But his conscience, with its Dutch morals and culture, I believe, had already been established. He became melancholy, weary, and idle, suffering from guilt, boredom, and insomnia. He became extremely dissatisfied with his work. He wrote that he couldn’t breathe, his thoughts were tangled, his canvases blank. He thought soberly about debts and duty: (Stewart-Roberts, 2010; p. 32).
Altogether, the trait theory by Allport explains van Gogh’s personality development is due to unique traits present in an individual. These traits often are the reasons why some individuals behave in a different manner. Psychoanalysis explains the value of van Gogh’s childhood experiences to be the cause of his bitter attitude towards the society and his unique painting styles. Behavioristic relies on the self-realization and interaction of an individual and the society which is exactly the same the same thing as psychoanalysis and trait theory. On the other hand, humanistic theory values the free will of individual and personal experiences. In contrast, the trait theory differs from psychoanalysis because the person’s behavior is analyzed using his characteristics instead of the id, ego, and superego. Humanistic and Behaviorism oppose each other due to the fact that behaviorism eliminates unwanted behaviors whilst the humanistic values free will of a person. As a conclusion, Vincent van Gogh’s personality was due to his bitter experiences in his childhood and adulthood. His manic depression worsened due to his wrong interpretation of Biblical teachings which made him a masochist instead of behaving like a normal person. “How you suffered for your sanity; how you tried to set them free. They would not listen they did not know how, perhaps they’ll listen now.” (McLean, 1970). Van Gogh’s unique paintings and letters served as his a pathway for modern day people to better analyze and understand the artist’s thinking, his emotions, and his actions. Although he might be misunderstood in the past, his works champions any works of the leading Post-Impressionists during his time.


Auden, W.H. (1961). Van Gogh: A Self-Portrait Letters Revealing his Life as a Painter. Greenwich, CA: New York Graphic Society.
Barkhuus, L. (1999). Allport’s Theory of Traits: A Critical Review of the Theory and Two Studies.
Collins, B. (2004). Van Gogh and Gauguin: Electric Arguments and Utopian Dreams. Oxford: Westview Press. Retrieved from
Greenberg, J. & Jordan, S. (2001). Vincent van Gogh: Portrait of an Artist. New York: Dell Yearling. Retrieved from
Kleiner, F. (2014). Gardner’s Art through the Ages: The Western Perspective. Vol. 2. 14th Ed. Boston: Cengage Learning.
Macionis, J., Nancarrow, J., & Gerber, L. (1994). Sociology: Canadian Edition. Ontario: Prentice-Hall Canada Inc.
McLean, D. (1970). “Vincent/Starry Starry Night.” Don McLean Online. Retrieved from
Naifeh, S. & Smith, G.W. (2011). Van Gogh: The Life. New York: Woodward/White Inc. Retrieved from
Nicholas, L. (2008). Introduction to Psychology. Cape Town: UCT Press. Retrieved from
Roberts, C.S. (2010). “The Conscience of Vincent van Gogh.” Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings 23(1): 31-32.

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