Updated: Jan 3
Our current understanding of psychology greatly surpasses what we knew only a century ago, which is one of the reasons historical works of art about mental health are so interesting. Beyond their raw expression of emotion, many of the artists who created them had a limited understanding of their condition, offering an unfiltered view of their lived experience with mental health.
Most of the works in this blog aren’t ‘about’ mental health per-say. They provide insight into the mind of the artist, often at incredibly vulnerable and difficult times. From showcasing residence in psychiatric wards to final paintings, the works on this list give us personal insight into the mind of the artists who created them. *TRIGGER WARNING*: This blog does mention abuse under 'Adolf Wolfli' and suicide under 'Mark Rothko'. You can use the below links to skip those sections.
Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) was an American painter known for his portrayal of African American historical subjects and contemporary life.
Lawrence painted using gouache and tempera to capture every dimension of life around him. From joy to suffering and social justice, Lawrence believed that the struggles experienced by African Americans were a part of the larger “struggle of man always to better his conditions and to move forward."
Lawrence rose to prominence at a very young age, when his Migration Series was featured in Fortune Magazine (it was the first major magazine to feature the work of an African American artist). Unfortunately, this quick rise to fame, and the work that came with it, left Lawrence feeling stressed out and overwhelmed.
Lawrence retreated to a psychiatric facility in Queens in 1949. During his 11-month stay, Jacobs painted eleven paintings, known as the Hospital Series, which included the above painting entitled 'Depression'. Lawrence’s Hospital Series was captured in much the same way as his other works, showcasing the multifaceted nature of being institutionalized. It depicted the joys of art therapy, the weight of depression, and the daily activities of other patients. This was both his first and last stay in a psychiatric facility.
Louis Wain (1860 – 1939) was a popular English illustrator whose depictions of country scenes and animals saw his work included in major publications, including the Illustrated London News.
Wain married the love of his life, Emily Richardson, at the age of 23. Soon after they were married, Emily was diagnosed with breast cancer and died 3 years later.
During the last 3 years of her life, Emily found immense comfort in the presence of her black-and-white stray cat, Peter. As a result, Wain drew hundreds of sketches of their cat, which Emily encouraged him to publish. After Emily’s death, Wain continued this theme, drawing anthropomorphized cats doing mundane activities, including playing golf, fishing and sledding. These illustrations were extremely popular:
However, later in life, Wain began to show signs of a serious mental health disorder. While he was often considered to be a kind and gentle man, Wain began to become increasingly suspicious, violent, and unpredictable. In 1924, Wain was committed to the Springfield Hospital. During this later stage in his life, Wain continued to depict images of cats, but they started to look…slightly different.
This new series featured psychedelic cats, whose features became more and more abstract and complex. While we do not know Wain's official diagnosis, it is believed by modern day scholars that Louis Wain suffered from schizophrenia.
There is a new documentary (released on October 21st, 2021) about Louis Wain called The Electrical Life of Louis Wain. Played by Benedict Cumberbatch, this documentary is now on Prime Video if you're looking for more Louis Wain.
Frida Kahlo (1907- 1954) is a female surrealist artist who is best known for her self portraits. Kahlo endured a lot of suffering throughout her life. She was diagnosed with polio at 6, was in a trolley accident in 1925 (that left her with chronic pain for the rest of her life and an inability to have children), and was in an abusive and tumultuous relationship with Diego Rivera. She is known to have said: "There have been two great accidents in my life. One was the trolley, and the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst.”
Kahlo's works are deeply personal and vulnerable. Whether they depict her accident, surgery, inability to have children, marriage to Diego, or loneliness, every work by Frida Kahlo revolves around one theme: "My painting carries with it the message of pain."
This work, 'Thinking About Death', was created in 1943, at a time when both Frida's physical and mental health were deteriorating due to being bedridden. Every Frida Kahlo work is a work about mental health in one way or another. Frida Kahlo experienced major depressive episodes throughout her life. She once said: "I never painted dreams, I painted my own reality.”
*TRIGGER WARNING: Mention of abuse*
Adolf Wolfli (1864 – 1930) is a Swiss artist, and was one of the first artists to be considered 'Art brut' or 'outsider art'. He grew up in foster homes and experienced a lot of instability as a child, including sexual and physical abuse.
When he was young, Adolf worked as an indentured child labourer and briefly joined the army. He become more aggressive and isolated over time. He was known for being inappropriate with young girls, which had him arrested and then eventually admitted to a psychiatric ward, where he spent the rest of his life.
All of Wolfli's artworks were created during his time in the asylum. Shortly after his admission, he began to draw. In the first few years at the asylum, Wolfli exhibited paranoia, hallucinations, and violent behaviour, however, drawing helped him remain calm.
There are 50 surviving works on paper that were created between 1904-06. All of his drawings are extremely detailed, often including text and other symbols.
*TRIGGER WARNING: Mention of suicide* Mark Rothko (1903 - 1970) was an American abstract painter of Latvian Jewish descent who is best known for his expressive colour block paintings: "I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on." Rothko moved to the United States from Russia in 1913. He found his artistic voice in New York among other prominent artists like Arshile Gorky, who influenced him and other abstract expressionist artists.
By the late 1950s, Rothko found himself increasingly depressed. Friends and family believed that this altered state of mind was responsible for the shift in his palette from light and colourful to dark and foreboding. However, in 1949, Rothko wrote to Clyfford Still: "This has been the darkest winter of my life — why and what I hardly know myself. … Ironically enough my pictures have never been more ecstatic. People will say what a cheerful guy I must be."
In 1968, Rothko's mental and physical health began to decline after he experienced an aneurism. Years of drinking, smoking, and an exposure to turpentine (used to thin oil paint) had likely been the cause.
This red painting by Rothko, Untitled (1970), is the final work that Rothko painted before he tragically decided to take his own life at the age of 66. This work was found feet away from where he was found.
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