Vincent van Gogh’s art is infused with isolation: a lonely chair, a grieving doctor, a brooding sky. For one psychiatrist, the French master’s paintings — and those of other artists throughout history — contain clues about mental illness, too.
James C. Harris, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science and director of Johns Hopkins University’s Developmental Neuropsychiatry Clinic, spent more than a decade writing monthly essays that connect the visual arts to larger issues of psychiatry and mental illness.
Now, those essays and the art that inspired them have been collected by the journal JAMA Psychiatry.
“Art and Images in Psychiatry” covers such topics as asylums, aging, psychosis, substance abuse and rape — all through the lens of art. Harris highlights a single piece of art in each essay, then delves into the life of the artist for psychiatric truths.
Take van Gogh’s “The Starry Night,” in which Harris finds clues to van Gogh’s possible mood disorder. Or a Käthe Kollwitz woodcut of women locked in an embrace — a commentary on the mental toll of bereavement, trauma and war.
Harris covers some of history’s most recognizable art and artists, but not necessarily in ways you might expect.
Rather than focusing on Leonardo da Vinci’s mental health in a piece about the “Mona Lisa,” Harris explores the psyche of Vincenzo Peruggia, who famously made off with the portrait in 1911, then muses on the reasons it has attracted forgers and other admirers for centuries. Norman Rockwell, Winston Churchill and even James Garfield’s assassin make appearances, too.
Many of the essays, which fill a few pages at most, can be viewed free. Others require a subscription. (Check with your local library or university to see if it has access.)
Essays are grouped in such categories as “Depression and Bipolar Disorder” and “Bereavement: Coping With Loss.” They hint at how art can both express and help heal mental illness — and how the beauty and chaos of painting preserves those challenges.