High creativity seems to accompany bipolar disorders. History reveals many famous bipolar artists and writers, including Edvard Munch, Vincent Van Gogh, Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf. Although definitive diagnoses in historical figures is difficult, existing evidence suggests that these individuals were all artists with bipolar disorder.
Visual Artists with Bipolar Disorder
Edvard Munch (1863-1944) is best known for his painting The Scream, an expressionistic piece depicting a figure screaming in pain. The painting shows emotions familiar to many with bipolar disease. During Munch’s childhood, he witnessed many loved ones die of tuberculosis, which may have triggered a future of bipolar disorder.
Munch was famous for self-destructive behavior consistent with bipolar disease, including public quarrels and substance abuse. He checked himself into a mental hospital, common for artists with bipolar disorder. Although he was able to stabilize his mood swings for a time, he lived his later years in seclusion.
Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) is well known for his hugely valuable and influential paintings. However, Van Gogh is also known for having severed his own ear after an altercation with a friend. This self-destructive behavior, along with his trademark periods of low productivity, followed by spurts of high activity, is consistent with the actions of other famous bipolar artists.
In 1889, Van Gogh committed himself to a mental hospital, following in the footsteps of many other famous bipolar artists. Although he remained active while in the hospital, painting the interior and exterior of the building, he was ultimately unable to control his mental illness. A few months after leaving the hospital, Van Gogh died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Writers with Bipolar Disorder
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), a Nobel Prize winner for Literature, was one of the most influential authors of the 20th century. Aside from his most famous works, including The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway was also known for his combative personality and his heavy drinking and fighting. He was a risk-taker, going on African safaris and writing about the running of the bulls in Pamplona.
Hemingway lived for many years with the ups and downs possibly caused by bipolar disorder. His mental state declined in his later years, however, leading to his suicide in 1961.
Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) was a well-known British author in the early 20th century. She struggled with mental illness and mood swings throughout her life, even while composing her most influential works, including Mrs. Dalloway and A Room of One’s Own. Woolf’s adolescence was marred by the death of her parents and sexual abuse at the hands of her half-brothers. Following her parents’ deaths, she went through major depressive episodes, being hospitalized each time.
Although she struggled with mental illness, Woolf was still able to publish many novels, stories and essays. In the early years of World War II, however, her mental condition worsened, due to the destruction of the war and relative lack of success of her work, culminating in her suicide by drowning in 1941.
Cander, J. (n.d.). Paint by emotion: Edvard Munch’s struggle with bipolar disorder. Accessed on August 10, 2010, from http://ezinearticles.com/?Paint-by-Emotion:-Edvard-Munchs-Struggle-With-Bipolar-Disorder