The Artist's Mind: The Creative Lives and Mental Health of Famous Artists

Image of The Artist's Mind: The Creative Lives and Mental Health of Famous Artists
Release Date: 
April 28, 2023
Reviewed by: 

The Artist’s Mind is written for understanding, and the accessible narrative flows easily. This is a must-read prior to any art gallery visit.”

This book is dedicated to “the artist . . . who is living with challenging conditions of the mind and creates anyway. What you give to the world is important.” This collection and discussion rests on the belief that “there’s a fine line between madness and genius.”

Vercillo asserts that with all that is known about mental health today, each of us lies somewhere on both the mental health spectrum and the artistic spectrum. The book focuses on the connection between art and mental health while looking at the life stories of 20 well-known artists. In a fascinating bit of sleuth, each artist featured in the book has been analyzed in the face of known facts about their life, struggles observed at the time of their work as well as posthumous diagnoses. The analysis spans the different eras of the lives of these artists, taking into account conditions that still exist in the lexicon of mental health and “those that have fallen out of favor or have been completely dismissed.”

The book is intentional with an eye toward the manifestation of artistic choice in its very design. Inside the multi-colored hardcover, its pages are smooth, crème colored and heavy, and create a pleasurable tactile experience for the reader. The simple line drawings of each artist at the head of each chapter, combined with background rainbow colors in abstract, are at first alluring; but over the course of the book, serve to remind the reader that this book is a discussion, an analysis, a summary exploration first, an expression of art, second.

Each chapter begins with a quote from the artist themself that sheds light on their process, beliefs, and struggles. Beginning with Vincent Van Gogh, known as “Art’s Mad Genius,” we read the voice of the artist: “The heart of man is very much like the sea; it has its storms, it has its tides and in its depths, it has pearls too.” Van Gogh understood that his periods of deep depression were so debilitating that he could not make art at all; and yet he alternately experienced prolific periods of creativity. Art seemed to be the only thing that made him feel better. But the question still remained: “Did his commitment to his art (and the ensuing financial struggles) contribute to his mental deterioration?” More than a century after his death, Van Gogh’s struggles and triumphs, better understood, create inspiration.

The book is divided into sections. Under Depression Spectrum disorders, nine artists’ lives and work are analyzed here, beginning as far back as the 15th century with the “Don” of artists—Michelangelo, and progressing to Rothko, Arbus, Goya, Munch, Miro, Lawrence, O’Keefe, and Alice Neel. It’s relatively easy to conjure up the artwork of each of these artists, they are so well-known, but after the discussion in this book, as to how their art informs their mental health and vice versa, the reader is left wanting to see the images referenced in the book.

The many discussions around Mental Health in this digest summarize the defining terms, the symptoms, cures and sometimes archaic names of each mental health struggle/disorder. Most with a rudimentary understanding of mental health will recognize the symptoms, and yet each analysis of each artist is a varied and different as the individuals themselves.

So much is taken into consideration: the era, the cultural background, the current societal and religious beliefs, and with those, the pressures each artist probably felt, pressures that added to their anxiety and discomfort. For many, the work itself provided some relief from suffering; for others it took them down darker paths. The discussion around Rothko’s work and life made a lot of sense, especially since the writers took into consideration Rothko’s use of medications—and his misuse of them—his pursuit of different doctors, the lasting effects of intergenerational trauma and his mind’s endless, repetitive loop.

A section on Trauma and PTSD handles five artists and further breaks down the analysis into Body Image and Art, Racism and Trauma, Gender Identity and Dysphoria.

The final section: Different ways of Seeing: Schizophrenia and Outside Art examines mental health as a way of seeing: the Outsider Art of Richard Dadd, Louis Wain, Aloise Corbaz, and Agnes Martin.

The specific lens through which the lives and works of these artists are discussed can be said to be almost entirely absent in discussions of their artwork in the mainstream of their day. Unless they were institutionalized, or committed suicide, this aspect of their lives would often get lost in the overarching imperative of the surrounding culture of art. 

So much can be written and observed without acknowledging the mental health of each artist, and yet, once explored, it adds richly to the understanding of each tortured genius and their celebrated works. In that way, this book is an essential companion to any study of art history. Notes and Bibliography at the end of the digest number 40 pages; the writer has obviously extensively researched this study.

The Artist’s Mind is written for understanding, and the accessible narrative flows easily. This is a must-read prior to any art gallery visit.