Exploring Mental Health Through Art

As we closed out Mental Health Awareness last month, we recognize seven renowned artists who battled mental illnesses throughout their careers. The romanticized legend of a “tortured artist” has been a gateway for the acceptance of a rather common human condition.  One in four adults lives with a mental health condition, yet this illness often remains shrouded. “Often, when people are creating something new, they end up straddling between sanity and insanity,” said Kari Stefansson, founder and CEO of deCODE, a genetics company based in Reykjavik. “I think these results support the old concept of the mad genius. Creativity is a quality… that is very important for our society. But it comes at a risk to the individual, and 1% of the population pays the price for it.”

Martín Ramirez

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Martín Ramirez, Photo: Martín Ramirez Estate

Mexican artist Martín Ramirez’s remarkable achievement, beyond the mesmerizing repetition of lines and images in his drawings, is that all of his artwork was created inside a mental institution.

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Untitled (Three VW Vans), Martin Ramirez. Photo: American Folk Art Museum

Edvard Munch

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Edvard Munch, Photo: National Library of Norway

Edvard Munch is said to have suffered from depression, agoraphobia, a nervous breakdown and to have had hallucinations, one of which inspired The Scream. His works often reflected his various mental states. He was hearing hallucinatory voices and suffering paralysis on his left side before he was persuaded to check into a private sanatorium.

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“The Scream”, Edvard Munch. Photo: Wikipedia

Vincent Van Gogh

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Vincent Van Gogh

Vincent Van Gogh battled severe depression and famously cut off his own ear. His absinthe intake caused epileptic seizures, agitating his already manic depressive state of mind. Van Gogh tragically ended his own life with a revolver in a wheat field like so many he painted in his lifetime.

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“Starry Night”, Vincent Van Gogh. Photo: Wikipedia.

Francisco Jose de Goya y Lucientes

Spanish painter Francisco Jose de Goya y Lucientes often has his work divided into two periods: before and after his illness. His paintings reflected his mental and physical instability that later culminated in him becoming permanently deaf.

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“The Parasol”, Francisco de Goya y Lucientes. Photo: Wikimedia.

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“Saturn Devouring”, Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes. Photo: Tes.com

Pablo Picasso

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Pablo Picasso, Photo: Herbert List / Magnum Photos

Legendary artist Pablo Picasso is said to have struggled with clinical depression. His body of work was often inspired heavily by his wives and mistresses, some of whom also suffered from mental health disorders. Most famously, his portraits of Dora Maar became increasingly severe as their relationship suffered.


“Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”, Pablo Picasso. Photo: Wikimedia

Georgia O’Keeffe

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Georgia O’Keeffe, Photo: O’Keeffe Museum

Georgia O’Keeffe suffered a mental breakdown in the early 1930s and had to be hospitalized. At age 46, O’Keeffe was admitted to Doctors Hospital in New York City after suffering from anxiety and depression–she reportedly had weeping spells and would go without eating or sleeping. Missing a deadline for a mural that was commissioned for Radio City Music Hall and her husband’s public affair were the major causes of her breakdown.

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“Gray line with black, blue and yellow”, Georgia O’Keefe. Photo: theredlist.com

Yayoi Kusama

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Yayoi Kusama, Photo: Yayoi Kusama Studio Inc.

Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama voluntarily checked herself into a psychiatric institution in the 1970s at the advice of her psychiatrist. She became a permanent resident there and continues to reside at the institution to this day. In an interview with BOMB, she says abut her work, “My art originates from hallucinations only I can see. I translate the hallucinations and obsessional images that plague me into sculptures and paintings. All my works in pastels are the products of obsessional neurosis and are therefore inextricably connected to my disease. I create pieces even when I don’t see hallucinations, though.”

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“Look now see forever”, Yayoi Kusama. Photo: Interactive Qag


“I don’t do drugs. I am drugs.” -Salvador Dali


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Vince spent a lot of money studying fine art in NYC, only to realize that those who can't do, really do teach. He is currently an art teacher and art journalist based out of Brooklyn.