“I put my heart and my soul into my work, and lost my mind in the process.”
— Vincent Van Gogh
Visual artwork tends to be the translation and expression of raw emotion onto a canvas. Throughout history mental illnesses have been projected through artwork, by many renowned artists. Three of the most prominent artists whose mental illnesses have been displayed through their artwork is that of Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh, and Edvard Munch. All three artists suffered some degree of bipolar disorder, anxiety, and hallucinations. To understand the strong correlation between mental illness and creativity in artwork, one must explore mental illness and their effects, examples of mental illnesses projected through artwork, and lastly the healing abilities that creativity in art has on the brain.
In order to understand how artwork and mental illnesses are correlated, one must understand the parts of the brain impacted by mental disorders. Focusing specifically on bipolar disorder, this illness targets the thalamus, amygdala, and hypothalamus regions of the brain. The thalamus region controls sensory information, most importantly the senses used expressed through artwork. The amygdala controls emotions and motivation, which is demonstrated through Pablo Picasso’s artwork during his “Blue Period,” which will be expanded on later in this post. Lastly, the brain’s hypothalamus is the center for expression of emotions, which are activated when viewing artwork. A study conducted at Emory University School of Medicine researched the, “the movements and state of the brain whilst exposed to art.” According to the study, participants observed the paintings of prominent painters such as Monet, Van Gogh, and other artists more intensely stimulates the brain’s “reward system” relative to the brain’s behavior that appears when viewing images of related subjects.
This graph represents the correlation between mental illness and creativity spikes, supporting the point that creativity demonstrates a correlation with mental illness.
An important example of how mental illness influenced artwork is that of Pablo Picasso, which can directly be seen through the different stages of his career and style of artwork, more specifically the colors of his artwork. The ‘Blue Period’ of Picasso’s art career occurred between 1901 to 1904, where blue and colder colors depicted his literal emotion of feeling blue, as he experienced depressive episodes, desperation, and hopelessness. This period soon after gave rise to the ‘Rose Period’ between 1904 to 1906. During this period, colors melted from blue to softer, warm pink palette colors. The transition between the darkness and his life to light and brightness.
Recent research from Harvard University has demonstrated that art has the capacity for healing powers. One can assume that these healing powers assisted artists such as Pablo Picasso during their bipolar episodes. Art as a medicine allows individuals to connect with the world in a means that they are able to express themselves through. According to Megan Carleton, a Harvard Art Therapist in the article, “Studies have shown that expressing themselves through art can help people with depression, anxiety, or cancer, too. And doing so has been linked to improved memory, reasoning, and resilience in healthy older people”. Art is a universal language for raw emotions, in which we can communicate.
All in all, the correlation between spiked creativity in artwork and mental illnesses has been questioned for years, yet the benefits are visible. Through understanding mental disorders and connecting them to artists throughout their painting careers, as well as drawing them back to the benefits of art for mental health, one can understand the influence that mental illnesses have upon artwork.
This is a painting that I created inspired by Bob Ross, when I was feeling sad. This painting represents my sadness projected onto this artwork.
Area of brain linked to bipolar disorder pinpointed. (2017, January 24). Retrieved
September 25, 2020, from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/01/170124144000.htm
ArtDependence. (n.d.). The Early Picasso. Blue and Rose Period – Cultural
Highlight in 2019. Retrieved September 25, 2020, from https://artdependence.com/articles/the-early-picasso-blue-and-rose-period-cultural-highlight-in-2019/
Editorial, A., & Gotthardt, A. (2017, December 13). The Emotional Turmoil behind
Picasso’s Blue Period. Retrieved September 25, 2020, from https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-emotional-turmoil-picassos-blue-period
Irregular: Bipolar Picasso. (2016, October 10). Retrieved September 25, 2020,
Must One Risk Madness to Achieve Genius? (n.d.). Retrieved September 25,
2020, from https://www.creativitypost.com/article/must_one_risk_madness_to_achieve_genius
Pedersen, T. (2018, August 08). Brain Feels Rewarded While Looking at Art.
Retrieved September 25, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2011/01/09/brain-feels-rewarded-while-looking-at-art/22415.html
Publishing, H. (n.d.). The healing power of art. Retrieved September 25, 2020,
Womer, F., Kalmar, J., Wang, F., & Blumberg, H. (2009, September 23). A Ventral
Prefrontal-Amygdala Neural System in Bipolar Disorder: A View from Neuroimaging Research. Retrieved September 25, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2911239/