Art History Lab

The Tragedy and Brutality of Mental Illness Treatment in Vincent van Gogh’s Time

The Enigmatic and Tragic Life of Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh is widely regarded as one of the greatest painters of all time. His vivid and emotional style has captured the imagination of people across the globe.

However, his life was plagued by difficulties and hardships that made his work slow to gain popularity in his lifetime.

Early Life and Struggles

Vincent van Gogh was born in the Netherlands in 1853. He was the son of a Protestant minister, and his family lived frugally.

Vincent’s childhood was marked by financial difficulties and religious issues. His father’s job required him to move frequently, and the family’s constant uprooting left Vincent feeling unsettled.

He struggled to find his place in the world, feeling conflicted about his faith and unable to form lasting relationships. Despite these difficulties, Vincent discovered his passion for painting at a young age.

However, he initially struggled to find buyers for his work. This led him to seek financial support from his brother Theo, who worked as an art dealer in Paris.

Theo’s financial support allowed Vincent to dedicate himself to his art, but he remained plagued by financial worries throughout his life.

Medical and Mental Health Issues

In addition to his financial difficulties, Vincent’s life was also plagued by medical and mental health issues. He suffered from epilepsy, which caused him to experience seizures that affected his ability to work.

He also had a history of heavy drinking, which further exacerbated his health problems. Vincent’s mental health issues were perhaps the most significant factor that affected his life and work.

He suffered from severe depression and was diagnosed by some experts as having bipolar disorder. Vincent struggled with internal conflicts, feeling that he was constantly battling between good and evil.

These internal struggles infiltrated his artwork, which was often characterized by vivid emotions and a sense of urgency.

The Ear Incident and Its Aftermath

On the evening of December 23, 1888, Vincent had an argument with his friend and fellow artist Paul Gauguin. This argument resulted in Vincent becoming extremely distressed, and he ended up cutting off part of his own ear.

The details of what happened that night remain somewhat unclear, but it is known that Vincent was in a state of intense emotional turmoil at the time. Following the ear-cutting incident, Vincent was admitted to a hospital in Arles, where he received treatment for his injuries.

His mental health continued to deteriorate, and he suffered from delusions and hallucinations. Some theories surrounding the ear-cutting incident suggest that it may have been a symbolic act or the result of alcohol or drug use.

The exact psychological factors that caused the ear incident are unknown, but it is clear that Vincent’s mental health was significantly affected. His bipolar disorder and anxiety likely played a role in the events leading up to the incident, and the intense emotional turmoil he experienced may have been a trigger.


Vincent van Gogh’s life was marked by hardships and difficulties. Despite his talent and passion, he struggled to gain financial stability and form lasting interpersonal relationships.

His mental health issues ultimately contributed to his tragic end, making him one of the most renowned and enigmatic figures in the history of the art world. The Historical Context of Mental Illness Treatment: Challenges and Failures

Mental illness has been a part of human history for centuries, and the way that it has been understood and treated has changed over time.

In the late 1800s when Vincent van Gogh lived, there was little understanding of mental problems. Consequently, the approach to treatment was often brutal, barbaric, and unsuccessful.

In this article, we will explore the historical context of mental illness treatment, with a focus on Van Gogh’s hospitalization and treatment, the stigma and hesitance in seeking treatment, and the futile therapies that were available.

Understanding Mental Problems in the Late 1800s

During Vincent van Gogh’s time, there was little understanding of the root causes of mental illness. Mental disorders were often believed to be a sign of moral weakness or a lack of willpower.

The approach to treatment was often violent and barbaric, with the aim of punishing the patient for their supposed weakness.

Violent and Barbaric Treatment

Van Gogh’s hospitalization is a well-documented example of the brutal treatment that was common during this time. After the ear incident, Van Gogh was admitted to a sanitarium in Saint-Rmy, where he was subjected to a series of painful and violent procedures such as being strapped onto a bed or chair and treated with electric shocks.

Patients were also frequently locked in their rooms, heavily medicated, and confined to straitjackets or padded cells. The use of physical restraints and violent treatments was believed to be the only way to control mentally ill patients.

The overall goal was to bring the patient “back to reality,” but the methods used were often more harmful than helpful.

Stigma and Hesitance in Seeking Treatment

The experience of seeking treatment for mental illness during this period was often humiliating and stigmatizing. Many people avoided seeking help because of shame or fear of potential repercussions to them and their family.

They were often subject to social exclusion, institutionalization, and discrimination. Patients were frequently blamed for their illness and treated as outcasts.

The attitude towards mental illness was one of shame and pity, with mental health issues seen as a personal failure rather than a medical condition. As a result, seeking help often meant risking social exclusion and public ridicule.

Futile Therapies for Mental Illness

During Vincent van Gogh’s time, there were few treatments available for patients with mental illness. The most common treatment was medication, which often caused disorientation and sedation without tackling the root cause of the illness.

Additionally, there were few effective psychological treatments available, and talk therapy was not yet a recognized practice. Many patients were treated with ineffective and harmful remedies such as bleedings, purging, and cold showers.

The use of these treatments was based on the idea that the patient’s illness was a result of an imbalance in the body’s humors, which needed to be adjusted.


The historical context of mental illness treatment highlights the challenges and failures of treating patients during Vincent van Gogh’s time. Patients were commonly subjected to violent and barbaric treatments, which did not address the underlying causes of their mental illness.

Stigma and hesitance in seeking treatment further marginalized those who suffered from mental illness. The available therapies were often futile, with few effective medication options, and little or no psychological support.

Despite these challenges, advances in our understanding of mental illness eventually led to more compassionate and effective approaches to treatment, which have significantly improved outcomes for those who suffer from mental illness today. In conclusion, the article discussed the historical context of mental illness treatment during Vincent van Gogh’s time.

Mental illness was not well understood, and patients were subjected to brutal and unsuccessful treatments. Seeking treatment was challenging due to stigma and the fear of social exclusion.

There were few effective therapies for mental illness, and people often suffered without getting the help they needed. The article highlights the importance of understanding the challenges of mental illness treatment to appreciate how much progress has been made today.

It also serves as a reminder of the need for increased awareness, compassion, and investment in the mental health space today.

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