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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.