Top 10 Tortured Artists

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These writers, musicians, and painters created masterpieces in the realms of literature, music, and art. At different stages of their lives, every person on this list suffered from severe hardships, mental illness and feelings of loneliness and despair. All of them suffered for their art in order to create legacies of great imagination and epic beauty.

10. Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec, Artist

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This French artist was born into a noble family in 1864, but he was doomed to suffer the ill effects of generations of inbreeding. His parents were first cousins, in keeping with the family tradition of marrying relatives, and as a result of this he was born with congenital defects that made his life challenging. After he fractured a bone, which failed to heal properly, he was diagnosed with a disease that would stunt his growth forever. His torso continued to develop normally, but he had the legs of a child. He grew to only five feet in height, and his genitals were rumored to be malformed.

Because normal physical activity was impossible for him, he used art as solace. He submerged himself in the process of drawing and painting, creating Post-Impressionist and Art Nouveau works that depicted the wild, and sometimes very sad, life of the bohemians who lived in Paris. His favorite subjects were the cabarets of the city and the characters that haunted them. He presented them in such a way that they were both tawdry and sympathetic.

The stunning work of Toulouse-Lautrec grew in depth and beauty as the man himself grew closer to self-destruction. He suffered from syphilis, and he was an alcoholic who imbibed a potent cocktail known as absinthe. He died at the young age of only 36 due to the ill effects of his addiction to the “green fairy” (absinthe) with its high alcohol content and drug-like effects. Absinthe was banned in 1915.

9. Thomas De Quincey, Author

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Born in Manchester, England, in August of 1785, De Quincey was a frail child who was often ill. He lost his father at a young age, and moved with his widowed mother to Bath, where he spent much of his childhood in solitary pursuits.

Thomas’s mother was strict and somewhat harsh, going so far as to pull him out of school for 3 years in order to prevent him from growing egotistical. However, attending an “inferior” school was not nearly enough to prevent his natural brilliance from shining through.

In young adulthood, De Quincey began the life of a wanderer, living in poverty and avoiding his family. In time, he returned to his education, but he remained a loner who could not blend in with his schoolmates.

He began taking opium (laudanum) during his studies, spiraling deeper into addiction and debt. He wrote Confessions Of An Opium-Eater, his most famous work, in 1821. This autobiographical work had a lyrical, haunting quality, as well as a gritty realism.

8. Sylvia Plath, Author/Poet

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Sylvia Plath, who was born under the intense, passionate sign of Scorpio, is best known for her semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar. She was born in 1932. Her confessional style of poetry and storytelling was always linked to her personal experiences. Early in adulthood, Sylvia began to suffer from mental illness that would plague her until her death.

While attending Smith College, Sylvia appeared to have it all. In her third year as a student, she was awarded a coveted apprenticeship at Mademoiselle Magazine in NYC. Her month in New York City was not what it should have been. Plath’s depression worsened and she began to contemplate ending her life. The plot of The Bell Jar echoed many of her experiences during that time period.

Sylvia did attempt suicide with pills, but she survived. She was taken for electroshock therapy at a mental institution. Plath seemed to rebound after her attempt, finishing college and taking up with poet Ted Hughes. But the demons that lay dormant in her complex personality were not to be denied. Ted was less than faithful during their marriage, and her passionate love for him pulled her into the abyss once more.

They separated in 1962, and Sylvia killed herself shortly thereafter. She turned on the gas in her home and put her head into the kitchen oven. Her children slept in their rooms as their mother died: she had placed wet towels under the doors to protect them from the fumes.

7. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Author

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Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoyevsky was a Russian author who created multiple works of genius, including The Brothers Karamazov, and Crime And Punishment. He is widely viewed as the founder of existentialism.

Dostoyevsky grew up with an alcoholic father who grew violent when he drank. His father had been employed as a surgeon at a mental hospital in a troubled neighbourhood in Moscow. Early on, young Fyodor had access to all manner of strange characters, and they captured his imagination. He often defied his parent’s rules, sneaking into the asylum gardens to speak to the inmates and listen to their stories. Fyodor was also subject to fits of epilepsy from the age of 9 onwards.

The cruel treatment Fyodor received at the hands of his father is legendary, but it may also be exaggerated. In 1832, his father died, perhaps murdered by those who resented his drunken rages.

Dostoyevsky began his writing career after a stint in the military. Early critical acclaim for his work led into a period where the public grew less enamored of his writing. On April 23, 1849, Dostoyevsky’s involvement in political activities led to Siberian exile and and even a cruel mock execution. He spent four years in harsh, filthy surroundings before being released.

Prison changed his political views and his own temperament. In later years, he created his greatest works, while struggling with a gambling addiction, debt, and severe depression. He died in 1881 after suffering a seizure that caused a lung hemmorage.

6. Kurt Cobain, Musician

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Many might argue that a grunge-rock musician such as the late Kurt Cobain has no place on this list, along with Dostoyevsky and the like. I believe that genius exists in every format and in every era. To me, Kurt is a perfect example of a tortured artist who created work of exceptional individuality and beauty.

Kurt was raised in a small Washingtown town, and he grew up loving music. He also grew up feeling misunderstood and depressed. His parent’s divorce, which he wrote about with faint derision in Serve The Servants (”that legendary divorce is such a bore”), was pounced on by the media as a prime trigger for the isolation and anger that plagued him through his teens and into adulthood. But the problems he had may have been more complex.

Kurt may have suffered from bipolar disorder. Mental illness ran in his family, and his journals show the flight of ideas and intense spates of energy associated with the disorder. He may have been genetically predisposed to extremes of mood, from the very creative “highs” to the terrible, dark lows that waylaid him for days in a dark room. Drugs were also a factor in the descent of this gifted guitarist, singer, and songwriter. Heroin and fame combined to bring out the very worst in this sensitive, highly-strung musician.

The word “grunge” is insufficient to sum up the melodic genius, fierce energy and raw beauty of songs like “Heart-Shaped Box” and “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle”. Time will well if the music endures beyond our lifetimes. I feel certain it will always have it place in people’s hearts.

5. George Orwell, Author

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I believe George Orwell is the most brilliant and prescient writer who has ever lived. No other author has ever taught me more about human nature and reality. 1984 was a true masterpiece, a flawless indictment of mob mentality, power, politics, and human frailty. Even the doomed romance depicted in the book was wrenching and impossible to forget.

This visionary writer was born Eric Arthur Blair, in British India, in late June of 1903. His family was relatively well-to-do, and in time they returned to England, where young Eric attended Eton College. He went on to become an Indian Imperial Policeman in Burma in 1922.

By 1927, Eric Blair was back in the UK and installed in rooms in London, where he began to study the lower classes and the seamy underbelly of society. In 1928, he moved to Paris and suffered illness and robberies that left him weak and destitute. He washed dishes and scrounged out an existence, building the base for another great Orwell work, the autobiographical Down And Out In Paris And London.

Eric Blair always saw himself as an outsider and an observer. His personal depression and misery are omnipresent in his work. In his essay, “Why I Write”, he points to a lifetime of unpopularity, insecurity, and longing for a father he never saw after the age of eight. From Eric Arthur Blair’s loneliness and despair bloomed the staggering depth, vision and truth of George Orwell.

4. Tennessee Williams, Playwright

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This legendary American playwright was born Thomas Lanier Williams on March 26th, 1911. He changed his first name to Tennessee in honor of his father’s home state. A frail child, he spent most of his time battling diphtheria and being derided by his own father, who saw him as a weakling and sissy.

On his father’s side of the family, tempers ran hot and spirits were high. On his mother’s side, strict religious principles were held in high esteem. This conflict in morality and values appeared in all his published works, lending him a unique voice.

His sister Rose suffered from schizophrenia and underwent a prefrontal lobe lobotomy. Tennessee Williams also suffered from the ill effects of repressing his homosexuality. He remained in the closet until 1970. Addictions, depression and dark violence were omnipresent in his work and in his own life. By 1969, the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof and The Glass Menagerie suffered a complete mental and physical breakdown: he died 8 years later.

3. Ludwig Van Beethoven, Musician

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Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany, in 1770.  His father taught him music from an early age. By the age of nine, his talent was already undisputed. His ambitious father lauded him as a child prodigy.

In 1787 Beethoven journeyed to Vienna, in the hopes of learning from Mozart himself. However, his mother grew terribly ill, and later died. Ludwig returned from Vienna to be with her before her death. In time, he caught the interest of a rich Count who became his patron. He composed and played in the orchestra at Court.

Beethoven combined performances, composing, and orchestra work to earn a living, and he did very well due to his signature sforzando style. But there was tragedy in the distance. Beethoven, with his many gifts and his virtuoso skills, was doomed to lose his hearing in the prime of his life.

The reasons for his encroaching deafness were uncertain. Terrible ringing in the ears and loss of hearing worsened over time. The master musician who lived to create musical beauty was robbed of his ability to understand his own creations.

And still he played…even when the cheers of the audience could be seen and not heard…even when he would cry as he turned from his piano and watched them applaud. The prison of silence Beethoven endured makes him a tortured artist through no fault of his own. It is believed that high levels of lead in Beethoven’s body may have contributed to his deafness.

2. Ernest Hemingway, Author

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Born in 1899, Ernest Hemingway earned Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes for his understated writing, which included The Old Man And The Sea. His domineering mother has a great impact on him as a child, pushing music on him at an early age because she taught music and once dreamed of being an opera singer. Hemingway resisted her influence, instead choosing traditionally male activities such as fishing and outdoor pursuits.

Hemingway tried to enlist for battle in WWI, but his vision was poor and he was not able to pass the physical exam. Instead, he joined the Red Cross Ambulance Corps. He was close to combat on the Italian front, witnessing death and destruction. The experiences changed him and haunted him.

Upon his return to North America, Hemingway dealt with heartbreak from a failed relationship. He sought work as a journalist, wrote extensively, and experienced many adventures all over the world. It is believed that Hemingway suffered from manic depression, which caused him to spiral downward in his later years. His gruesome suicide in 1961 was the result of a self-inflicted, double-barreled gunshot wound to the forehead.

1. Vincent van Gogh, Artist

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This Dutch master used color to express a prism of emotions. His work seems to vibrate with life and energy. The beauty and the mysterious, transcendent elements in his paintings make them hypnotic and unforgettable.

Vincent was born in 1853, in the Netherlands. He was shy, emotional child who battled low self-esteem. He was also tortured by epilepsy, which was believed to be the result of a brain lesion that was present since birth. Some of the drugs van Gogh was given to combat his epilepsy were thought to change his visual perception, and many historians feel that this altered vision of the world may have influenced his unique style.

The sense of torment and misery that appeared in many of van Gogh’s works were a harbinger of his eventual suicide. The paintings themselves seem to roil with dark emotions and turmoil. van Gogh had suffered from severe depression all of his life. When he was 37, he walked out into a field and fired a revolver at his own chest. Two days later, he succumbed to his injuries, at home in his bedroom.


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58 Comments

  1. The great Czech composer Frederich Smetana also suffered deafness from unknown causes as did Beethoven. Smetana is best known for "The Moldau" (Vltana) from his "My Country" suite and the "Dance of the Comedians" from his opera "The Bartered Bride" (used in so many of those Roadrunner-Coyote chase sequences).

  2. Kurt Cobain? Really? Not tortured. "Oh noes! I'm a teenager that feels misunderstood and i'm depressed! And, to top it all off, my parents divorced!"

    • Actually, Kurt Cobain lived under a bridge for long periods of time. He then would go to friend's houses when he knew they had drugs onhand and would proceed to get high and completely intoxicated. Once he would wake up the next day, he would either go on, to another house with drugs and alcohol or he would go back beneath the bridge.

      He would do this until he met his future band mates. And he slowly rose to becoming the well-known muscian of Nirvana.

    • While all into the depression, he married Courtney Love. You didn't mention that. That chick is the icing on the cake. A person mentally imbalanced shouldn't marry someone with the same problem. Add that to his problems.

      • Heather Matthews on

        agreed, Monica. I didn't want to drag Courtney into the whole thing because he did love her at one point and I still care about Kurt Cobain. But I do agree with what you've written.

    • Kurt still taste fame during his lifetime…he's overrated,he doesn't made any masterpiece,in few years he will forgotten…

        • Liz Matthews on

          I agree. Some people just want to be judgemental. But there is great depth and beauty in his work and I still love it.

      • That’s nonsense. Regardless of how you personally judge his work, Nirvana are as popular today (if not more so) as when Cobain died in 1994, over 16 years before you made your comment. Just when exactly do you think that he will be forgotten?

        • Liz Matthews on

          People that need to make negative comments about something that others see beauty in are just pessimistic, insecure assholes. Kurt was a wonderful person and had a lot to say, and will never be forgotten!

      • find me someone else who had an album that knocked the great late michael jackson off the number one spot and didnt have one bad song top to bottom.

    • Kurt Cobain suffered intense physical pain most of his life from an undiagnosed stomach condition. As a child he was diagnosed with ADHD and Bipolar disorder as an adult. Add the drugs and alchohol which makes it worse and the media screwing with people’s lives…now that all sounds hip and dandy doesn’t it?

  3. Heather Matthews on

    Some psychological distress is hidden, but still very real. One could argue that Orwell had no specific reason to be miserable, and yet he was.

  4. Heather Matthews on

    He would fit in here- in a sense. However, due to the child molestation charges and all the rest of it, I felt that he may have had a darker side, and been a tad more villainous than most on the list.

    Only the children, and Michael himself, know what happened at Neverland Ranch.We can only speculate about whether or not he was the victim of a brutal childhood, or a predator himself – or both.

    Michael was a genius dancer and singer – he was brilliant, and clearly tortured as well. But he may have crossed the line and become what he despised.

    Thanks so much for commenting on my list.

  5. Heather Matthews on

    Hi !,

    Goya’s art is amazingly beautiful. I have to confess some ignorance about his life story, though. I’ll have to educate myself.

    Poe is a great suggestion, I’ve written about him before. Thanks for commenting on the listl

  6. I think Maya Angelou could potentially also go on this list.

    She's made some famous literature, and was definitely tortured.

    Although she's still alive. So maybe that makes her ineligible?

  7. Heather Matthews on

    well, people can be alive but still tortured…can't they? 🙂 I'll have to learn more about Angelou, thanks for the suggestion.

  8. FYI – absinthe on its own is technically a liqueur or even a straight up liquor I believe, not a cocktail. And generally the hallucinogenic effects that are attributed to it have to do largely with the method in which it was consumed in the 19th century. Many opiates and other narcotics were readily available at that time, including laudanum which was an opium derivative.

    Traditionally absinthe was prepared by slowly melting a sugar cube resting on a slotted spoon above the glass with a few drops of cold water. Often this sugar cube had been soaked in laudanum beforehand, so as the sugar dripped into the absinthe, the opiate got mixed in too. It was the laudanum and not the absinthe itself which contributed to the hallucinations (though the absinthe was indeed a potent alcohol on its own).

    • Heather Matthews on

      Thanks Bert,

      Interesting info on absinthe. I know Marilyn Manson still drinks the stuff, I wonder what his method of preparation is? 😉 Have a great day…

  9. I completely disagree with Kurt Cobain. He might have been bipolar and his parents did get divorced but the same can be said for millions of other people who aren't tortured. There are also a whole lot of other famous people who do heroin that don't act the way he did. I think that he killed himself because he was a huge sellout. Think about it, I would have killled myself too if I had actually been enough of an idiot to pose on the cover or Rolling Stone with a shirt that said "Corporate Magazines Still Suck," or something along those lines anyways. I guess my point is that all of his issues were self inflicted and he was a complete and total hipocrit who stood for exactly what he never wanted to stand for and he doesn't deserve to be on this list. He chose to be tortured.

    • Heather Matthews on

      I think it's unwise to assume you know the inner workings of another person, and how much pain they suffered, and why…

      Bipolar disorder is a serious mental condition that often makes its sufferers feel tortured…famous or not. It is not in any way "self-inflicted".

      I'll have to respectfully disagree with you on this one.

      • Liz Matthews on

        Yes, indeed Heather. I must add my two cents on this with less grace than you have. Which I think is wonderful, the way you approach people who are so judgemental.
        Sara, you need to go experience some things and learn about life. If you had one ounce of empathy, you’d understand how your comments are completely cruel, rude, and unempathetic. I hope no one ever blames you if you suffer.

  10. I'm not sure where they would place on a list of tortured artists, but I would have to add;

    1. Michael Landon (Eugene Orowitz)- overcame a chaotic and troubled childhood to become one of the greatest creative forces in the history of television. He was undoubtedly a genius and his legacy proves it.

    2. F Scott Fitzgerald – A tortured soul, a raging alcoholic who poured all of himself into his writing and in doing so created some of the greatest works in the history of American literature.

    3. Darby Crash – 70's LA punk rock legend, frontman for the Germs. He took his own life by a deliberate heroin OD in 1980 at the age of 22. A dark and brilliant lyricist, he left behind a body of work that would influence generations of punk/hardcore and alternative musicians. I was not surprised to find out that Kurt Cobain idolized Darby Crash, only that he knew so much about him.

    • Heather Matthews on

      Hi Anon,

      Thanks for your suggestions, all of them are good. It would have been interesting writing about F. Scott Fitzgerald. I am familiar with Michael Landon. Unfortunately, I always hated Little House On The Prairie, and it would never have occured to me to add him here – sorry.

      I know a little bit about Darby Crash. Good idea – Sid Vicious probably would have been a decent choice for this list. But maybe I was focusing on people I perceived as geniuses.

      I pretty much picked people whose work blows me away, because they are already on my mind. Then I researched and found more people. I am really into everyone on this list's work, except maybe Hemingway and Williams. I like them, but don't love them. And my fascination with Plath waned as I grew up. The rest of the people still fascinate me.

      Thanks for the thought-provoking comment 🙂

  11. Thank you for your reply, Ms Matthews. I know it's hard to compile a list such as this when there are such a large number of troubled/gifted artists throughout the ages to choose from.

    Speaking of which, I forgot to mention Brian Wilson as a possible candidate for this list. He is often spoken of as a musical genius (due largely to the "Pet Sounds" album) and obviously suffered greatly growing up as a result of paternal abuse.

  12. Heather Matthews on

    Brian Wilson would be perfect for this list. Alas, I loathe The Beach Boys, being more of a Nirvana type, but his gifts seemed to have moved so many people…

    thx

  13. Absinthe is banned in France until now. You can buy some in Spain, or Luxembourg.

    But in fact, the drug-like effects ( hallucinations… ) have been removed. Of course.

    It tastes like anis.

    You can saw the video of " the perfect drug " of Nine Inch Nails. It shows how people did for prepare absinthe. It's a pretty song that I love too.

    Artists like Marilyn Manson clame to drink about 2 liters of absinthe per day, but it is not as dangerous than before. 2 liters of real absinthe will kill you.

    Pardon my fren…hu, my english! I am still learning.

    • Heather Matthews on

      Your english is much better than my French. You were very clear…

      Thanks for the interesting information about absinthe…it seems like the very essence of decadence…just another instrument of self-destruction for many tortured artists.

      I love reading these comments, and I appreciate your taking the time to read my list. Thank you.

  14. Here are some ones that I would have included:

    Nick Drake-An isolated loner who lived a miserable life due to the rejection he felt from the outside world.

    Layne Staley-A singer with a golden voice who destroyed himself with heroin.

    Ian Curtis-Suffered through turmoil in his personal life due to a bad marriage. He also was burdened by depression and epilepsy. He committed suicide at 23.

    Daniel Johnston-A great musician heavily burdened by schizophrenia.

    Franz Kafka-A writer who used his depression and self-hatred to write beautiful stories.

    H.P. Lovecraft-His grim outlook on life manifested itself in the horrifying creatures he created.

    Lenny Bruce-A martyr for free speech.

    Sam Kinison-Another life plagued with failed relationships and substance abuse.

    Bill Hicks-Constantly frustrated with the hypocrisy he saw in people. He was never able to develop a true connection with the world during his lifetime.

  15. Surely absinthe is a spirit, not a cocktail – though invariably drunk with ice water strained through a sugar cube. It was banned wrongfully, being said to be made from the wrong type of alcohol not meant for human consumption and caused blindness and death etc. In fact, it was government propaganda because too many Parisiens were getting drunk and spending all their time at cafes at a time when France was heavily involved in World War 1. The drink was too drinkable in fact, though with high alcohol content and strong bitter flavour (hence the water and sugar cube).

    Sensibly, absinthe has been restored to the family of spirits and the ban has been lifted. I have a bottle of 75% absinthe at home and as long as you “drink responsibly”, it is perfectly safe. Mind you, a friend at my New Year party was drinking it straight !

    As regards Toulouse-Lautrec, I think his full name was something like Henri Marie Raymond Toulouse-Lautrec de Monfa.

  16. How about Jimi Hendrix ? He was arguably more talented than Kurt Cobain and I believe more famous. He was very depressed by the God-like status bestowed upon him by fans who still went into raptures even when he played a messy or sub-standard set. It showed they didn’t understand his music at all and dodn’t even know when his playing was rubbish. However, unlike Cobain, Jimi didn’t commit suicide, he died of vomit inhalation after a drinks/drugs session a week after his apperance at the Isle of Wight Festival – itself a strangely messy set.

    • Heather Matthews on

      very good suggestion. I’m a Nirvana fanatic, but I would agree that Hendrix is Kurt’s equal in terms in talent. thanks so much for the comment.

  17. The French goverment ban in 1914, due to its stated bad reputation, was surely due to France going to war and the sight of Parisien men lolling about drunk at cafe tables, when they should be out getting there killed by the foe, was unacceptable.

    I have a bottle of Absinthe at home – 75% proof, less strong than in previous times, but still nice with iced water and sugar through the spoon. A friend of mine was drinking it straight at my New Year party !

  18. You may want to look into Alice Neel. She had four children, one died at around a year, another was taken to live with the father’s family. She attempted suicide several times, and spent time in a mental hospital. She also battled colon cancer. Try, AliceNeel.com

  19. Sadly, there are few who will ever understand Cobain. Which may be why those who do feel so connected. I was pleasantly surprised to find him on this list. Thank you, Heather.

    • Thanks, Laken. I definitely think he belongs here. He touched my heart in a very profound way and still does. That’s what a great artist is supposed to be! I only wish he could have been happy, as he gave (and gives) so much happiness to others..

      Cheers,

      Heather

  20. what about Rothko, Munch , Marilyn Monroe ( who suffered much more than Sylvia Plath ) , Giacomo Leopardi, Bacon ?

  21. Ian Curtis, lead singer of Joy Division. Just look up any of his lyrics, especially from their second album “Closer”.

    He died from suicide. Tragic loss for music in what was becoming one of the best bands in the 80’s post-punk/new wave scene. It’s because of Joy Division we have bands like Interpol, The Editors, The Walkmen, The National, The Horrors, Bloc Party, and The Rapture among others (I think those are the best of that whole post-punk revival).

    And of course during Joy Division’s time you had artist like The Cure, Depeche Mode, Gang of Four, U2, The Chameleons, The Sound, The Pop Group, KUKL, Swell Maps, Bauhaus, and many many more awesome groups.

    dig it…

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