Paintings That Unveil What Depression Feels Like

Paintings That Unveil What Depression Feels Like

By: Olympia Villagrán -

The looming shadow of creativity is made up of madness, an abyss of depression, and anxiety. Many artists, especially painters are touched by this darkness.


The looming shadow of creativity is made up of madness, an abyss of depression, and anxiety. Many artists, especially painters, have been touched by this darkness, suffering mental and emotional disorders throughout their careers. 

They lived in an unending nightmare, where the torment, confusion, and disorders were immortalized in the paintings. These inner demons became the protagonists of not only their art, but also their lives. While not everyone suffered hallucinations, bipolar disorders, schizophrenia or anxiety attacks, most of these artists in particular expressed in each brushstroke what their minds couldn't contain any longer. 

In fact, some of these artists saw their illnesses as part of the source of inspiration that transformed their paintings into unmatched works of art. Edvard Munch shared this same belief, "My fear of life is necessary to me, as is my illness. Without anxiety and illness, I am a ship without a rudder. My art is grounded in reflections over being different from others. My sufferings are part of my self and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art. I want to keep those sufferings.” Healing these disquieted and unbalanced minds would mean the extinction of their success as artists.

Black in Deep Red – Mark Rothko

sad paintings depression rothko black in deep red

The life of this genius was filled with contradictions and paradoxes. Rothko was an artist whose depression grew together with his fame, to the point that it led to his suicide. Despite his tragic death, Rothko was known from the start of his career as an expressionist and abstract artist without equal. Many pinpoint the start of his depression with his divorce and his second marriage instead of lifting him from this slump drove him deeper into depression. 

The small group of untitled works known as Multiforms that he painted during 1947-1949 preceded the mature works for which he is highly lauded. Through color manipulation on a large scale, he would play with vibrant colors and high-keyed pigments, and as his career took off and rose higher and higher, his later works gravitate to a bottomless darkness. In his vast abstract works he began to detach from the art world and from life itself. 

It would appear that this expressionist sought to silence, perhaps forever,  the consequences of his psychological pathologies that at that moment had reached an important level. There was no turning back for Rothko and his paintings express every tragedy, exultation, ecstasy, and fatality. It was in the mid nineteen fifties that his paintings began to turn darker, and the presence of grey, blue, black, and brown were present in almost every single work. In this profound darkness, the works of this painter turned monochromatic, a final farewell from Rothko before taking his life.

The Harlequin's Carnival – Joan Miró

sad paintings depression miro the harlequins carnival

Miró was known for suffering constant depression, which dragged him into a life of psychopathy, mood swings, and periods of successful productivity and irrevocable inactivity. The works of this painter are symbolic of his depression. He had a keen perception that allowed him to fragment reality and capture it within a painting. From early on in his career, he suffered crippling doubts and anxiety, and this was driven by his explosive temper. From a young age he experienced difficult situations that led to his extreme sadness and despair; for instance, his father forced him to abandon art and work in a drugstore.

The artistic stages of Miró are well defined. We can trace the moments where his creativity was bountiful, when he was able to paint up to 130 paintings in less than two years, and periods where we has left paralyzed by depression. It is impressive to see how Miró's work transmits his emotions, his paintings in many instances are imbued by an abyss of anguish.

Blue Poles – Jackson Pollock

sad paintings depression pollock blue poles

Jackson Pollock made chaos an art form. An inveterate alcoholic and extraordinary artist, he died in a tragic car crash a few meters away from his home. He was a wonderful painter who used a technique no one had experimented with before until the mid nineteen forties. He turned the art world upside down by painting anti-traditional works that reflected his convoluted frame of mind. In every drip and slosh of paint he demonstrated the madness hidden within us all. The strange dripping technique Pollock employed transformed his paintings into strong statements. For him, the only way he could concentrate on his work was allowing the unconscious mind to take control of the body and paint on his behalf. Maybe this is why his style is strong and unpredictable, identical to the sort of life he led.

He had a story of anguish, depression, alcoholism, and uncontrollable urge to always act in a spontaneous way. Just as we never know where the last drop of paint will fall, his life was as equally unpredictable.

The Yellow Christ – Paul Gauguin

sad paintings depression gauguin the yellow christ

The experiments with color and different elements enabled this Postimpressionist to achieve fame. While on the surface he led a tranquil life with his wife and five children, Gauguin also suffered extreme bouts of depression that led him to commit several attempts against his life. Rumors circulate around his disappointment on the Impressionist movement, and as a result, he sought new shapes and symbols that would give new meaning to his art. Fed up with the misery and lack of acknowledgement he received from the world, he decided to travel to Tahiti. There, besides painting, he was involved in a series of problem that led to his imprisonment. In 1903 he passed away due to syphilis, and his life was marked by alcohol, loneliness, and a drowning disappointment.

The Absinthe Drinker  – Edgar Degas

sad paintings depression degas the absinthe drinker

Few artists can showcase that many contradictions in their work like Degas. Highly dependent on his mother since his youth, her death affected him immensely. From an early age he decided to dedicate his life to art and was heavily influenced by other artists like Gustave Moreau.

This impressionist was also influenced to a greater extent by dance, a theme we see time and time again in his early works. As years passed, his work became more complex and influenced by a series of personal issues that haunted the artist, such as his family's economic turmoil, the death of his father, and the poor reputation he had garnered up till that moment.

Nothing was as traumatic for the artist as the progressive loss of sight that stopped him from completing many of his works. His paintings reflect an inner world and a distorted sense of reality. Some believe he suffered from schizophrenia, while others maintain he was subsumed in deep depression.

The Witchy Brew – Francisco de Goya

sad paintings depression goya the witchy brew

The main reason why Goya's work underwent so many changes is due to the mental disorder he suffered. While no official diagnosis was ever made, it is known that he suffered bouts of depression that were exteriorized in the mutations of his paintings.

Catastrophic events, black colors, dark ochres and reds, symbols of violence, unruly perspective, and deformed human figures are some of the elements that characterize Goya's work. He was a prisoner of depression, and as a result, he painted world renowned works, and he is lauded for his enigmatic figure.

Francisco de Goya showed the different stages of his madness through his segmented artistic styles. He began with complicated paintings filled with light, and the shapes in his paintings denote a childlike vision of the artist. Little by little, under the chokehold of depression, his paintings adopted monstrous figures that unleashed a psychological crisis the artist was never able to escape.

The Scream – Edvard Munch

sad paintings depression munch the scream

It is speculated that this expressionist artist suffered from schizophrenia, but in fact it was a depression fed by his introverted nature, alcoholism, and brush with death, as Edvard Munch witnessed the passing of his mother and sisters.
The most celebrated work of this Norwegian artist isThe Scream, from which we can extract the different feelings that plagued the mind of this artist. An uncontrollable melancholy, an unbearable weariness, and a despair fed by fear. Every pitfall was forever immortalized in his works and just as depression cast a grey shadow in his work, it would be a protagonist in his work.

At Eternity's Gate – Vincent van Gogh

sad paintings depression van gogh at eternitys gate

This Dutch artist is one of the most highly coveted painters in the world, and his personal life was highly controversial, which positioned him as one of the most problematic painters. Van Gogh was manic-depressive, and his days were dominated by hallucinations, visions, and epileptic episodes. The latter would confuse him to such an extent he suffered from amnesia and a psychosis that impacted his creative capacity. The charm of this artist resided in the paintings he created while in the acute stages of his illness while he was staying in the mental health institute of Saint-Rémy.

The personal struggle of each of these artists continue to echo to this day through their artistic legacy. These paintings that today hang in the most celebrated art galleries and museums of the world, perpetuate the belief that artists are more susceptible to mental disorders. Madness it would seem, lives side by side with creativity. 

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