A Study in Blue: Mental Illness and Depression in Art History

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When words could not express the toxicity of the human mind, a paintbrush was used instead. Mental illness and depression have been integral inspirations behind many artists, most famously, revealing the unravelling mind of Vincent van Gogh. Plato has stated that “madness is a gift from the Gods”, and more recently, British poet Lord Byron stated that artists are “all crazy. Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but we are all more or less touched”.

For centuries, art has encapsulated the madness within with striking reds, hypnotic patterns, and unsettling blues. Starting with the melancholy portrayed in the Renaissance to the morbidity throughout the Romantic Era and now, to the more pronounced portrayals in the modern era, mental illness has influenced art tremendously. With the help of pioneers including van Gogh, Edvard Munch and Edward Hopper, mental health has been discussed and solidified as an important issue in society. From their portrayals of the tortured mind, more people have begun to understand the catastrophic effects of depression and anxiety.

As Aristotle once claimed, there is a “connection between madness and genius”.

Here, I’ve compiled a list of what I believe are the most important paintings which respectfully portray the unforgiving and disastrous effect of an agonised mind. As one of the 180,000 (Beyond Blue, 2015) Australians suffering from mental illness, I believe that these paintings have shaped my understanding of my condition internally and have visualised how I feel when I have a particular feeling of melancholy. To me, they have been invaluable in understanding myself and destigmatising mental illness.

#1 Zelda Fitzgerald, Self-Portrait in Water Color

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Zelda Fitzgerald (1900-1948), Self-Portrait in Water Color, c.1940s, watercolour, unknown location.

Whilst there is no established date for this painting, it is widely believed to have been completed during Zelda Fitzgerald’s stay at mental institution, Highland Hospital, during the early 1940s. During this time and the years prior, Zelda had been institutionalised for her fast deteriorating mental state and diagnosed with acute schizophrenia. Her tumultuous marriage with F. Scott Fitzgerald and abuse of alcohol had exacerbated her already fragile mental being and made her easily susceptible to violent mental episodes. This self-portrait reflects her fragility and transparency to the world. It highlights her isolation and reclusion whilst denoting her sadness through her eyes. The lack of vibrant colours in favour of earthy browns and blacks show that there is nothing left but a shadow and outline of a once vibrant human being.

#2 Pablo Picasso, The Blue Room

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Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), The Blue Room, 1901, oil on canvas, The Phillips Collection, Washington.

Painted during his notorious Blue Period, Picasso’s, The Blue Room highlights the artist’s strong melancholic feelings and depressive tendencies. Using different shades of blue and little to no other colour, Picasso is portraying his sombre mental state and path toward his unravelling mind. His obsession with the strange and morbid, i.e., the prostitute featured in this painting, only brought him closer to his derailing state of mind. Painting during the year of his friend’s, Carlos Casagemas’ death, this painting can be said to be a statement of isolation and distrust of the world.

#3 Edvard Munch, The Scream

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Edvard Munch (1863-1944), The Scream, 1893, oil, tempera, pastel and crayon on cardboard, The National Gallery, Oslo.

An infamous example of depression portrayed in art, The Scream illustrates the manic mind, and strikingly shows the madness within. Painted by Munch in in 1893, The Scream is a semi-autobiographical depiction of his existential crisis and manic depression. With the salient red sky and zombie like figure in the middle of the madness, The Scream imitates the fear and turbulence of a mind with mental deficiency. It shows that the world is full of fear and isolation and sometimes the worst terror of all is living.

#4 Vincent van Gogh, Sorrowing Old Man (‘At Eternity’s Gate’)

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Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), Sorrowing Old Man (‘At Eternity’s Gate’). 1890, oil on canvas, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo.

Prolific for his struggling mental being and inner turmoil, van Gogh’s art has been an early staple for the depiction of mental illness. Institutionalised and manic depressive for most of his later life, van Gogh used art to encapsulate his feelings of isolation, sadness and resentment for the world. His 1890 oil on canvas piece, Sorrowing Old Man (‘At Eternity’s Gate), encapsulates the sorrow and grief of a man who is beyond the point of happiness. Finished just two years before his suicide, the painting is an ode to his relapse into mental despair and depressive deliriousness. The painting exemplifies the isolation one goes through when left in a sordid state of mind. By using a strong blue to highlight the main figure of the painting, van Gogh is physically showing his depression and anxiety.

#5 Albrecht Dürer, Melencolia I

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Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Melencolia I, 1514, engraving, Staatsgaleria, Stuttgart.

Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I is a depiction of what the artist believed to be sadness and gloom. Void of any colour and vibrancy, the painting encapsulates the isolation and emptiness of a depressive mind. The despondent faces and figures of the painting show that the world can be a bleak and unhappy place to live in for sufferers of melancholy. The painting was used by Dürer to show his lack of confidence in his paintings and slump in this period of his life. The painting is seen as a pioneering effort to understand psychology and the observation of mental illness in everyday society.

– Olivia De Zilva

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