The Tortured Artist: Six Tragic Figures from Art History

Goya. Toulouse-Lautrec. Van Gogh. We know their names and we love their art, but how much do we really know about these artists' lives? Their creations have stood the test of time and have gone down in the annals of art history as some of our greatest masterpieces. Yet, the age-old stereotype of the tortured artist actually applies for the six artists on the list that follows. Read on to learn more about the tragic lives of these men who have suffered for their art and left such beautiful legacies.

Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist by Caravaggio. National Gallery, London Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist by Caravaggio. Circa 1607. National Gallery, London

Caravaggio

Legendary Baroque artist Caravaggio is renowned for his highly dramatic paintings that are heavy on both the chiaroscuro and the theatricality. Yet, few realize that his life was just as tumultuous as many of his paintings. Known for his arrogance, his swagger, and his very short temper, Caravaggio had a reputation as dark as the shadows of his canvases. One of the most important artists to ever live, his bluster seemed to increase along with his celebrity in Rome. He is said to have worked devotedly on his art for periods of two weeks, followed by month-long periods of cavorting around Rome starting fights with everyone from waiters to the police.

A notorious brawler, Caravaggio's finally fought one too many fights in 1606, when he unintentionally killed a young man named Ranuccio Tomassoni over a gambling debt. Forced to flee justice and leave Rome, he eventually ended up in Naples. Unfortunately, his experience in Rome did not make him a changed man, and he continued his brawling ways. After one brawl, he became permanently disfigured. He eventually died under mysterious circumstances, ostensibly from a fever while travelling on a boat from Naples to Rome. Some argue that Caravaggio was in fact murdered by his enemies, and details surrounding his demise remain suspicious.

Saturn Devouring his Son by Francisco Goya. Museo del Prado, Madrid Saturn Devouring his Son by Francisco Goya. Circa 1819-1823. Museo del Prado, Madrid

Francisco Goya

As with many artists on this list, Spanish artist Francisco Goya composed works that were a direct reflection of the tragedy that surrounded him throughout his life. During the first half of his career, Goya rose as an artistic celebrity in Spanish circles, composing glittering portraits of the Spanish courts. Yet, personal tragedy struck in 1792, when an illness caused Goya to lose his hearing. Following the loss, he became depressed and withdrawn, and he began a series of aquatinted etchings that are among his most well-known works today. As a whole, the prints are fairly bleak, representing the artist's own outlook on life.

Shortly after his own illness, tragedy struck on the national level when France declared war on Spain. Images of death and war, which he undoubtedly personally witnessed, invaded his oeuvre. A series of mental breakdowns resulted in a prolonged illness that lasted for the rest of his life. Starting at the age of 75, he composed one of his most famous series, the Black Painting. Painted directly onto the walls of his house, the works portrayed intense, haunting themes, including Saturn Devouring His Sons. He expressed his own personal demons through his horrific and fantastic imagery, which speak universally, allowing his audience to find their own release in his works.

A Signal by John William Godward A Signal by John William Godward. M.S. Rau Antiques

John William Godward

The works of John William Godward capture idyllic, imaginative worlds set in utopian Greco-Roman settings. Unfortunately, the artist's life ended in a way that was far less utopian. The last great painter of the Neoclassical tradition, Godward was a protege of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. The two artists similarly favored classical subjects, and Godward initially enjoyed some success as a painter. In spite of his success, he became estranged from his family, who were embarrassed by his career. Thus he moved to Italy in 1912 with one of his models, and did not return to London for a decade.

By the time he settled back in England, it was clear that his style of art had fallen out of favor. Instead of Academic works in the Neoclassical style, collectors were eagerly purchasing the latest modern creations from Pablo Picasso or Claude Monet. Devastated by the public's indifference to his art, Godward committed suicide at age 61. In his suicide note, he wrote, "The world is not big enough for me and a Picasso.”

Marcelle Lender Dancing the Bolero in "Chilpéric" by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec Marcelle Lender Dancing the Bolero in "Chilpéric" by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Circa 1895. National Gallery of Art, London

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Today, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is one of the most famous of the Post-Impressionist painters, remembered for his beloved compositions of Parisian bohemian bars and nightclubs. Yet, his personal life did not reflect the brilliance of his famed posters; rather, it was short and tragic. He was dealt a bad hand before he was even born. His parents were first cousins, and thus he suffered a number of health issues commonly related to inbreeding. At the age of 13, he broke his right femur, and at 14, he broke his left. Neither healed correctly, likely due to a genetic disorder known as pycnodysostosis (sometimes referred to as “Toulouse-Lautrec Syndrome”). As a result, his legs ceased to grow, leaving him with an adult-sized torso and the legs of an early teenager.

Unable to pursue the aristocratic hobbies of other men of his station, Toulouse-Lautrec immersed himself in his art. He became deeply embroiled in the seedier side of the Parisian bohemian culture, spending most of his time in the bars and brothels of Montmartre. He became a legendary alcoholic, to the point where he hollowed out his cane and filled it with liquor to ensure he was never without a drop of alcohol. His lifestyle began to take its toll, eventually resulting in his death at the young age of 36.

The Scream by Edvard Munch. Circa 1893. National Gallery of Norway The Scream by Edvard Munch. Circa 1893. National Gallery of Norway

Edvard Munch

Best known for his haunting work entitled The Scream, Edvard Munch unsurprisingly makes our list of art history's tortured artists. His works are fascinating in the psychological themes that he explores, and in many ways they reflect the ghosts that had haunted him for nearly his entire life. Tragedy struck the Munch household when Edvard was just 5 years old. His mother, to whom he was particularly devoted, died suddenly of tuberculosis. Just nine years later, his sister succumbed to the same disease. Munch himself was a sickly child, and by the time he reached adulthood, he was prone to bouts of anxiety, depression and even alcoholism.

As his artwork continued to develop, so did his neuroticism. Subject to hallucinations, he suffered a mental breakdown in 1908. Eventually, however, he recovered, living in solitude at his nearly self-sufficient estate in Oslo until he died at the age of 80. Of his tragic past, he once posited: “Without fear and illness, I could never have accomplished all I have.”

Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear by Vincent van Gogh. Circa 1889. Courtauld Institute of Art, London Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear by Vincent van Gogh. Circa 1889. Courtauld Institute of Art, London

Vincent van Gogh

Perhaps the most legendary tragic figure in art history is Vincent van Gogh, who rounds out our list. Born into an upper-middle class family, van Gogh was a serious, quiet and unhappy child who took to art at an early age. Despite his family's help, he found it difficult to hold a job as an adult. In 1874, he became infatuated with a young woman in London, only to learn that she was secretly engaged. This led to the beginning of van Gogh's religious fervency. He attempted to become a pastor, though failed his entrance exams to theology school. Instead, he became a missionary in Brussels, but again was rejected by the local clergy. It was rejection from which he would never recover.

Thus, he set out to become a full-time artist, eventually producing nearly 900 paintings, though he only ever sold one during his lifetime. He lived thanks to the support of his parents and brother, Theo, whom he corresponded with almost daily, and sometimes multiple times a day. His famed letters offer remarkable insight into his mental illness, as well as his artistic process.

The culmination of his insanity occured around his 1888 visit with Paul Gauguin, an artist with whom van Gogh wished to develop a close friendship. They worked and lived together in Arles for a few months before the relationship began to deteriorate. When he learned that Gauguin intended to leave him, van Gogh severed his left ear with a razor, delivering the ear to a woman in a local brothel. Van Gogh later claimed to have no recollection of the event. Shortly thereafter he entered the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum, and in 1890 at the age of 37, he committed suicide. His legacy was a large body of work that is now considered among the most important in the history of art.

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