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Influence of Mental Illness on Vincent Van Gogh's Later Works

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Arts
Wordcount: 4663 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Vincent Van Gogh, the Iconic Depressive Artist of  

the Post-Impressionism Movement 

How was Vincent Van Gogh’s later works influenced by mental illness during the Post-Impressionism Movement? 


Vincent Van Gogh was named the most iconic troubled artist after being discovered that he underwent through depression, however, he still had a very creative and imaginative mind where he would still use what he learned and integrate them into his artworks (The Art Story). Van Gogh had experienced a variety of art movements throughout his whole art career. He went from Pointillism to Neo-Impressionism to Post-Impressionism and so on. Van Gogh had experimented on a variety of the elements of art he had gained from his stay in France including the thickness of brush strokes for texturizing and a change in his color palette which has allowed Van Gogh to contribute them into his later works as he began to feel more comfortable and excited to paint paintings with such great emotion through the use of color and form. The Post-Impressionism Movement was the major art movement that brought Vincent Van Gogh’s name into the spotlight. His pieces that existed throughout the Post-Impressionism Movement allowed Van Gogh to emphasize his personal expression through the factors of his surroundings including the people he met, artists specifically and his experience in France.   

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Emotion played a significant role in his artworks as his mental illness had a heavy influence on the emotion and message he tried to send through his artworks as he dived deeper into the Post-Impressionism Movement (Artble). The idea of freely expressing the emotions Van Gogh held inside allows Van Gogh to wander freely into the idea of creating a variety of thick strokes and a color bright color palette allowed Van Gogh to run wild on the canvas. Van Gogh’s influence on the idea of emotions playing a heavy role in art led to the art movement, expressionism as the pieces of Post-Impressionism still plays in influencing another art movement. The Potato Eaters (1885) and the Winter Garden (1884) are two artworks that are very contrasted to The Starry Night (1889) and Café Terrance at Night (1888) based on color palettes and composition would be focused and analyzed in this essay in order to view the role of heavy thick brush strokes and the colorful color palette playing a role in Vincent Van Gogh’s later artworks. The Post-Impressionism Movement allowed artists to enhance the sense of emotion and perspective in their works. 

The Post-Impressionism Context 

The Post-Impressionism art movement is defined as a style used to express emotions through art – created by a group of young artists who would influence both the Impressionism and Post-Impressionist movements. Their artistic styles included influencing emotions rather than simply optical impressions through their artworks in order to concentrate on deeper symbolism by the use of simplified colors and forms to give out an aesthetic feel (Voorhies). The Post-Impressionism artists broke the limitations of Impressionism and decided to expressively use color and form to express the meaning behind their artworks by painting with emotion and intellect. They were not concerned with the effects of light and visual effects that were seen in Impressionism, they wanted to stress their personal view of the visual world be able to freely expressive their used color and form to describe emotions and movement (Van Gogh Gallery).

The Post-Impressionism does not refer to a single style, technique or even approach to an artwork, however, it allowed famous Post-Impressionists to be able to all develop their art styles independently (Van Gogh Gallery), allowing the extension of Impressionism and a rejection of that style’s inherent limitations (Art Movements). Through the free use of expressively using color and form, artists are able to transform their artworks into a more personal perspective as they began to create a deeper meaning behind their artworks without words but colors. 

Vincent Van Gogh and Gauguin were two artists who used bold, intense colors in their own expressive artworks. These two artists shaped Impressionism (Van Gogh Gallery). These artists used their knowledge of the bright color palette and the use of heavily thick brush strokes to paint with such emotions that not only defines art itself but to give a deeper understanding of their artworks to the public (Van Gogh Gallery).   

Background of Vincent Van Gogh 

Vincent Van Gogh was named the most iconic troubled artist after being discovered that he underwent through depression however he still had a very creative and imaginative mind where he would still use what he learned and integrate them into his artworks (The Art Story). His depression played a big role in his artworks as they had a heavy influence on the emotion and message he tried to send through his artworks to the public. As he began to use emotions in his artworks, his artworks began to change as he began to dive deeper into the Post-Impressionism world (Artble). 

Vincent Van Gogh began to gain inspiration from the many artists that he has met throughout his traveling in France. When he moved to Paris in 1886 (Artble), he took his time to adapt the Parisian life and connected with many impressionists who created art in their own ways. During his time in Paris, he studied at Fernand Cormon’s workshop however, he was disappointed and uninspired during his time of studying drawing models or plasters, so he decided to leave and work on his artworks alone (Gerondeau). 

 In Arles, he was highly influenced by many artists such as Monet and Gauguin who influenced him to adopt the more vibrant and brighter colors that contrast with his shades of greys palette into his works, creating one of his signature pieces, the Sunflowers (Gerondeau). The bright new palette reigned heavily over Gogh’s previous dark muted color scheme (Van Gogh Gallery). His expressive and emotive use of color and distinct brushwork started to become well-known as a few of his most famous works include Starry Night, the Sunflowers series, and The Bedroom at Arles began to be exposed to the public (Artble).  

Artists who play a key role in Vincent Van Gogh’s Post-Impressionism life such as Gauguin, Pissarro, Monet, and Bernard were the first people to influence him in Post-Impressionism and also Impressionism itself which led him to experiencing the different techniques used to create his artworks aesthetically pleasing for his liking during the Post-Impression Movement (Artble). As he traveled through France, he has discovered the many different painting techniques from different artists whom he had discovered throughout his trip in France then started to become intriguingly interested in Impressionism during his time in Paris. Studying Impressionism including studying at a painter’s workshop to working alone and befriending other artists in order to understand more outside of the box by using other artists’ techniques in their artwork allowed him to explore new techniques and brush strokes with primary and complementary colors and contributing them into his artworks.  

Gauguin, an artist who became a huge influence on Vincent Van Gogh developed a close friendship with Van Gogh after meeting up in Paris in 1887 and then later lived together in Arles. Vincent Van Gogh was greatly influenced by Gaugin during this time and tried to imitate the artist’s painting techniques which led to his artworks becoming less realistic when Gaugin bought a bale of jute for himself and Van Gogh one day which had allowed their artworks to consist of the technique of “applying paint more thickly and using heavy brushstrokes” (Artble) which they both have discovered and gained together in order to capture the essence of an object in a painting. The idea behind this technique allowed Vincent Van Gogh’s artworks to become more of the mpressionist style as thick layers of paint contribute to the definition of Impressionism. Meeting Gauguin is an example that meeting other artists could help contribute to a change in Vincent Van Gogh’s artworks. They heavily influenced Vincent Van Gogh and change his ways of creating art to become more expressive through a colorful palette and the use of thick brush strokes (Artble).   

While experimenting with different techniques, Neo-Impressionist pointillists like George Seurat and Paul Signac influenced Van Gogh about having the division of the spectrum of visible light on his own paintings. Van Gogh experienced a variety of techniques by using optical impression which can be produced by creating small strokes of primary and complementary colors. After experimenting with different techniques with a variety of colors a color palette has to offer, Van Gogh explored a new way of creating still life paintings (Gerondeau). Experimenting with the variety of colors allowed Impressionism and Post-Impressionism being heavily influenced on his color scheme by transforming his dark muted color palette to a bright new palette. This altered his later artworks as he continued to use a more bright and colorful palette into his paintings (Van Gogh Gallery). Vincent Van Gogh’s trip in France allowed him to be able to gain the knowledge of the use of heavy thick brush strokes and combine it with the color palette allowing his mind to wander and explore the world of Post-Impressionism as he created his own artworks with his sense of style and his emotions. Art isn’t truly art until you pour your whole emotions into it. 

Earlier Artworks 

Vincent Van Gogh is well known from the Post-Impressionism Movement, however; his older artworks aren’t as well-known as his later works. The Potato Eaters (1885), a very contrasted artwork compared to Vincent Van Gogh’s works during the Post-Impressionism movement, is a very early canvas of his while he lived among the peasants and laborers in Nuenen in the Netherlands. He strove to depict the people and their lives truthfully through the use of elements of arts. This led to him using a very dull color palette, painting peasants whose faces are terribly ugly living in drab living conditions to further iterate the effects of manual labor that has been set upon these people. The painting consisted Van Gogh’s use of loose brushstrokes in order to describe the faces of these peasants who are huddled in a very small space under a dim lantern, eating their meager meal of potatoes (The Art Story). 

The Potato Eaters (1885) is quite monochromatic. The dull color palette includes colors such as brown, grey, black, giving a very depressing and melancholy feeling the public can receive through this painting. The earthy tones reflect on the sunburnt face of the peasants and workers who may have gone through hard work and labor under the sun and thus, earthy colors are in order for the viewer to feel pity yet disgust at the same time since brown is perhaps everyone’s least favorite color on a color palette. The monochrome gloom of this scene reflects on the ordinary daily life of peasants of that specific period of time. The overall colors used in this painting are tertiary and earthly as Vincent Van Gogh’s use of somber tones definitely illustrated how a poor life of a peasant could be through the art piece’s atmosphere and mood of poverty. 

The composition of the art piece is carefully arranged. Almost as if it’s symmetrical in a way where the bulky shapes of the figures are distributed geometrically. There are two people on either side of the table facing each other, another two seated behind the table facing the viewer who is visually separated by the rest with a feminine figure painted as a silhouette as she is giving her back to the viewer at the front of the table. The lady’s back is facing the viewer as a silhouette blocks the viewer in order to show a sense of isolation. The subjects are arranged in a unified and balanced composition as space is all used well, and the potato eaters are sitting in a very comfortable position. The ceiling is low and close to the peasants, the room is also compact and shabby, creating a perception of oppression. These factors contribute to the hushed, dull atmosphere in the artwork and not only demonstrates Vincent Van Gogh’s commitment to contributing emotional and spiritual scenes into his art, but also “established ideas that Van Gogh followed throughout his career” (The Art Story).  

The Winter Garden (1884) is another art piece, specifically a drawing of Vincent Van Gogh which is also very contrasted against the paintings created during the post-Impressionism movement. Painted in March 1884, Van Gogh was currently staying in Nuenen with his parents. During this time, he had grown a sense of strong emotion and fascination with the landscape (Vincent Van Gogh). In one of his letters sent to Theo, he wrote, “the garden with the weeping tree and the conifer bushes, if you could put them on stretching frames that would be good. I’m a little attached to those” (Van Gogh Letters 673).

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 The painting reveals the view of the back garden behind Van Gogh’s childhood home in Nuenen, in the Dutch province of North Brabant. The village’s old church tower is visible in the distance and the brushes on the right corner may have been wrapped in straw in order to be protected from the cold since it was during the winter season which makes sense since the fields are flat and empty. Van Gogh showed great sympathy for the bare fruit trees that had to survive the winter however, he made them receive a very melancholy appearance with “angular branches”. Van Gogh also placed the woman who only forms in the dark accent in the composition in order to express his great concern for the people during the winter. He later in a letter to Theo called this figure “a black apparition” (Van Gogh Museum).  

Contrasted with Vincent Van Gogh’s artworks that were painted during the Post-Impressionism era, The Potato Eaters (1885) and the Winter Garden (1884) are two artworks that display a very dull-like color palette Vincent Van Gogh tend to use before he began experimenting with the bright and colorful colors that were used for Impressionism. From childhood to the Post-Impressionism Movement, it seemed as if Van Gogh lived in a very monochromatic life as he only pointed out the hardships of other people’s lives and expressively painted or perhaps draw them in a very dull scene. 

Artworks From the 1886s Onwards 

The Starry Night (1889) 

The Starry Night (1889) is one of the most famous paintings done by Vincent Van Gogh during his stay at an asylum in Saint-Remy in 1889. It was said that this painting was a view out of Van Gogh’s asylum window. The artwork displays swirling clouds in a very bright starry night and a bright crescent moon, overlooking perhaps what seems to be a village. Allows the viewers to see the contrast between the bright night sky and the silence of this village which is supposed to be Van Gogh’s hometown, Netherland. The painting also consists of a cypress tree which is typically found in graveyards — this must’ve been a part of the artist’s perception of the inevitability of death. “This morning I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise, with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big,” Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, describing his inspiration for The Starry Night (1889); perhaps Van Gogh loved the night time (MoMA).  

Vincent Van Gogh underwent a serious medical condition when he had painted The Starry Night (1889). This may have been one of the reasons why his brush strokes became very thick and prominent in the painting as they had an unrelenting rhythm, creating an illusion of the painting being in motion. The unique thick brush strokes are very much obvious as it’s possible that his severe anxiety attacks may have further dramatized his brushwork. However, his technique “adds even more depth as well as a rich texture to this work of art” (Artble). The shapes in the painting that stood out the most would be the circular motion in which Van Gogh portrayed the stars and the cloud. Normally, clouds are never given the shape of circles in painting however in this particular painting, Van Gogh visually makes them as swirling clouds that seem as if they appear to be in motion. The stars are also painted in shapes of circles, rather than the typical pointed star form. This results in the painting looking consistent (Artble).  

The luminous stars and the moon reflect brightly on the village showing a sense of dominance that perhaps Van Gogh had a passion for the nightlife. The darkness of the village at must have represented how dispirited the world looks compared to the bright night sky. The cypress tree is also a dark figure in the painting. Like the Winter Garden (1884), the cypress trees are mostly found in cemeteries, this element of symbolism in the painting represent the connection between how close life and death are (Artble).  

Vincent Van Gogh’s color palette for this sky was quite bright as there is a dominance of the color blue which is visible in the sky compared to the dark figures of the village. Van Gogh’s use of yellow and white to represent the stars, moon, and clouds draws the viewer’s attention to the sky as it is so bright and colorful compared to the village. The reflection of the moon is shown through the use of streaks of dark blue and greens, complemented with mint green. The houses of the village are painted as small blocks of greens, oranges and, yellows with a hint of red. The bright blue colors of the night sky are balanced carefully by the touch of orange in a few elements of the night sky. The rich color palette Van Gogh has used may perhaps portray the emotions of the love of the nighttime (Artble). 

Van Gogh had been severely sick mentally and perhaps a different interpretation of the painting would have been about hope as the cypress tree shows that even if he knows death is inevitable when it does come, it will give him eternal peace. “I should not be surprised if you liked the Starry Night and the Ploughed Fields, there is a greater quiet about them than in the other canvases,” Vincent Van Gogh says through his letters to Theo, his brother. This art piece may represent the idea that Van Gogh was at war with himself – he couldn’t accept that death was coming for him and in the end, the night sky was the reason why he felt as if he was at peace with himself (Artble).  

Café Terrance at Night (1888) 

One of the first scenes Van Gogh painted during his stay, Café Terrance at Night (1888) was created through the use of contrasting colors and tones. Van Gogh achieved in creating a luminous surface that contributing with an interior light in order to be contrasted with the darkening night sky; quite similar to The Starry Night (1889). The lines of composition all connect to the center of the art piece, drawing the viewer’s attention along the pavement as if the viewer is a part of the painting, strolling along the cobblestone streets. “Here you have a night painting without black, with nothing but beautiful blue and violet and green and in this surrounding the illuminated area colors itself sulfur pale yellow and citron green. It amuses me enormously to paint the night right on the spot…” he writes in a letter describing his perspective on the painting to his sister. “Painted on the street at night, Van Gogh recreated the setting directly from his observations, a practice inherited from the Impressionists” (The Art Story). However, unlike the Impressionists, he contributes a spiritual and psychological tone to his artwork that reflects on his personal perspective and reaction. The brushstrokes are thick and vibrate with perhaps the sense of excitement and pleasure Van Gogh had experienced while painting Café Terrance at Night (1888) since he a loving for the night sky (The Art Story). 

Café Terrance at Night (1888) displays perspective and warm complementary colors that draw the viewer into the painting and beyond. The little café welcomes the viewer with its tiny white tables alongside the street and the repeating of spheres which seem to resemble as stars in Vincent Van Gogh’s eyes are hung in the Prussian blue sky. The awning and walls of the café are painted in warm yellow, making the viewer feel comfortable as both the café and the sky enhance the blue and yellow color palette in order to form the composition (Life of Van Gogh). 

The Influence on Expressionism 

During the Post-Impressionism Movement, Vincent Van Gogh intensified Impressionism by contributing vibrant colors and painted them thickly on to the canvas (a technique now known as impasto). These thick energetic brushstrokes expressed Van Gogh’s emotions which allowed viewers to characterize the uniqueness of Van Gogh as his later works began to be charged with emotional content which is now known as another art movement named Expressionism.  

Expressionism is an artistic style in which the artist “attempts to depict not objective reality but rather the subjective emotions and responses that objects and events arouse in them” (Art Movement). Van Gogh’s idea of diving deeper in creating deeper meanings full of emotions in his artworks led to his accomplishment of creating “distortion, exaggeration, primitivism, and fantasy and through the vivid, jarring, violent, or dynamic” (Art Movement) emotions through a set of elements of art. As one of the rising art movements in the later 19th and the 20th centuries, the idea of spontaneously self-expressing yourself through color and form become more famous in the art community (Art Movement).  

Compared to Impressionism, the idea behind Expressionism strongly led to the idea of the artist’s own sensibility towards their perspective on the world’s representation. An expressionist artist search for the balance of harmony and forms is not as important as to trying to achieve the highest expression intensity they are able to achieve based on the aesthetic point of view and the idea of human life (Art Movement). 


The artistic elements that lie in Vincent Van Gogh’s works in The Potato Eaters (1885) and the Winter Garden (1884) are quite contrasted compared to his later works that are influenced by the Post-Impressionism Movement. As Vincent Van Gogh strives to freely express his emotions through art, he had started to use a bright colorful color palette and learned to create heavy brush strokes in order to portray a deeper message behind his artworks. It seems as if he favors the color yellow as it begins to be a color that can be seen in every artwork as it ties along with his severe mental illness because yellow meant happiness and even though he wasn’t in the happiest moment of his life, he turned to the night sky and the color yellow as what seems to be his only happiness. The Starry Night (1889) and Café Terrance at Night (1888) are examples of the use of yellow in a bright vibrant color palette which is very contrasted to the artworks Vincent Van Gogh was created before about the difficulties of the human life. The representation of the idea of emotions playing in artworks simply makes an art piece more appealing when a viewer can sense it. One is simply not art until you pour your feelings into a masterpiece. Vincent Van Gogh’s perspective on the messages he wanted to convey in his artworks and his use on the relationship between the use of colors and techniques heavily influenced the Post-Impressionist Movement to a considerable amount. Van Gogh’s use of techniques of color transformed his dark muted color palette to a bright vibrant color palette allows a more appealing look on the artworks and his use of thickly layered strokes of paint draws out the raw emotions on a canvas to convey his messages to the viewers. 


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