It’s no secret that drugs and alcohol influence your mindset in ways that can springboard thoughts and ideas you wouldn’t normally have. Some even suggest that substances unlock a part of consciousness that is normally suppressed. In fact, some of history’s greatest visual artists created well-known masterpieces under the influence of drugs and alcohol. But while history has seen stunning inspiration come from recreational drug use, there is an equal — if not greater — amount of tragedy that often befalls the tortured artist.
Like many who suffer from substance use disorder, some of the world’s greatest artists have tragically struggled with mental illness and health issues that induce drug and alcohol use. But the legacy of these artists doesn’t have to be in how they died. The beauty and inspiration that they created serves as hope for those who deal with similar issues.
Vincent van Gogh
Drugs of Choice: Absinthe and Digitalis
Vincent van Gogh is famously remembered as one of the world’s most tragic artists. His struggles with mental and physical illness continuously inspire other works, including classic songs and even a fully painted feature film, “Loving Vincent,” now in select theaters. But his artwork doesn’t only serve as glimpse into the complex artist’s daily life — it offers insight into his fragile health and the substances he used to cope.
The Dutch post-impressionist is noted for distinct yellow hues and somber movements in his paintings, which many suggest are a direct reflection of his unhealthy relationship with substances. Van Gogh was known to drink absinthe, a high-alcohol-content spirit popular in the 19th century, in excess. In fact, he even painted the drink in his distinct style. And while some might attribute his artistic prowess to intoxication, van Gogh himself admitted that it was more a detriment to his skill in letters with his brother: “Besides, it is a certain fact that I have done better work than before since I stopped drinking, and that is so much gained.”
But alcohol wasn’t the only substance van Gogh is believed to have used for his ailments. His doctor is said to have prescribed digitalis, a common treatment for epilepsy at the time. With many users reporting a yellow tinge to their vision when using digitalis, it’s believed that Van Gogh’s amber-hued painting like “Sunflowers” were partially a byproduct of the drug. One of his most notable works, a portrait of Doctor Paul-Ferdinand Gachet, showcases his personal physician alongside a foxglove plant, the derivative of digitalis.
While his substance misuse may have contributed to his art, one thing is certain — van Gogh wrangled with mental and physical illness, like many artists. And while some may laud his accomplishments while under the influence, he himself admitted that his artwork peaked in sobriety. If van Gogh had access to more comprehensive treatment for substance use and mental health, perhaps his legacy would be less tragic.
“Besides, it is a certain fact that I have done better work than before since I stopped drinking, and that is so much gained.”
Vincent Van Gogh
Drugs of Choice: Alcohol and Valium
The Painter of Light is one of the 20th century’s most-loved artists. Thomas Kinkade’s heartwarming depictions of bucolic landscapes and fairytale-worthy cottages can be found proudly displayed above sofas the world over. But despite the pleasantries of his work, the man acclaimed as the world’s most successful living artist suffered from a substance use disorder that ultimately contributed to his early death in April 2012.
According to an autopsy released after his death, the 54-year-old succumbed to “acute ethanol and diazepam intoxication” — a deadly combination of alcohol and Valium. Part of the benzodiazepines family, Valium is used to treat anxiety, seizures and muscle spasms.
Kinkade created boundless idealized visions of the world — hardly the type of manic images you might imagine from a mind under the influence of substances. But like many artists, he used more than his creative work as an outlet for emotion. With a pending divorce and looming financial problems, the prolific painter spiraled into an alcohol-fueled frenzy that those closest to him were acutely aware of.
Patrick Kinkade, the artist’s brother and mouthpiece for his work, explained, “Thom believed that he should be able to control it, and that contributed to his downfall.” Despite family support and a few feeble attempts at reaching out for help, Kinkade’s romantic realism was overturned by the harsh realities of substance misuse. His story serves as a poignant reminder of the importance of maintaining mental and emotional health instead of glossing over the complexities of the human experience.
Drug of Choice: Obetrol
The pop art prodigy Andy Warhol is best known for his colorful depictions of celebrities like Marilyn Monroe and poignant portraits of Campbell’s soup cans. The 20th-century artist had a fascination with drug culture, but mostly as the subject of his art. His pop perspective drew a new crowd of art adorers, a set that would admire modern art while under the influence of drugs and alcohol, blurring the lines between the gallery and nightlife scenes.
In 1963, Warhol received a prescription for Obetrol, an amphetamine diet pill of the era that served as a predecessor to Adderall. The stimulant, similar to speed, became a daily ritual, most likely fueling Warhol’s frenetic artwork as his career progressed. With a surge in recreational drug use in society in the 1960s, Warhol was perfectly positioned to both observe and participate in a new culture of mind-altering substances.
Posthumously diagnosed as a hoarder, Warhol struggled with anxiety and stress at the hands of his collections of pizza dough, stamps, airplane menus, grocery store fliers and more. Like many artists who use drugs (whether they were prescription or recreational), Warhol’s mental health was at the forefront of his drug use.
Prescription medication can be an effective way to treat anxiety and other mental and behavioral disorders, but it also has the potential for misuse and long-term damage. Warhol died in 1987 at the age of 58 following gallbladder surgery. He had never fully healed from a gunshot wound inflicted in the 1960s, and was dehydrated and overrun by his daily dose of Obetrol.
Warhol’s work came to light during an era of pop culture craze and experimental drug use. And yet some of his most prized pieces were created before his daily use of Obetrol and other medications. While the endlessly eccentric artist may have struggled with his mental and physical health, his legendary contributions to art and culture (with and without substances) are undeniable.
“When people are ready to, they change. They never do it before then, and sometimes they die before they get around to it. You can’t make them change if they don’t want to, just like when they do want to, you can’t stop them.” Andy Warhol
Drug of Choice: Alcohol
In 1949, LIFE magazine published a splashy article on Jackson Pollock, posing the question, “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” Known for his revolutionary drip technique and controlled, energetic movements, Pollock ushered in a new era of American art during his short life. The Wyoming native took the art world by storm, displaying all the virtues of any great artist with his brooding, silent character. Often photographed with a stern look and a cigarette hanging from his lips, Pollock exemplified the mysterious avant-garde artists of the day, with a dash of the Wild West for good measure.
But his troubled persona was far from an affectation. He struggled with a difficult childhood that manifested itself not only in his work, but also in his daily habits and behaviors. A notorious alcoholic, Jackson Pollock drank heavily in his youth. His father, who also struggled with alcohol, left the family when Pollock was only 8, floating in and out of his children’s lives for years.
The feverish pace of Pollock’s artwork reflects the struggle he faced within. He battled depression, and at least one doctor diagnosed him with borderline schizophrenia. Pollock famously drank to cope, often leading to outrageous bouts of anger. Unfortunately, his most noteworthy incident was also his last. On August 11, 1956, he drank beyond his limit before crashing his car, killing himself and one of his two female passengers. Alcohol and rage proved a lethal combination for the 44-year-old. Like many others before and after him, Pollock tried to self-medicate his unresolved past with alcohol. While art can be an effective coping mechanism, it is most beneficial when coupled with therapy and a support system.
Drug of Choice: Alcohol and Antidepressants
Like many other post-war artists, Mark Rothko used substances to numb the pain of life’s realities while fueling creativity. A boundary-breaking pioneer in 20th-century art, Rothko struggled with a variety of hardships, including anti-semitism during World War I, troubled marriages and personal relationships, and depression.
His artwork reflects living emotions. Subdued geometric patterns are offset by softened, organic edges, highlighting the layers of human consciousness and the space inside the mind. Unfortunately, Rothko’s artwork didn’t provide the ostensible comforts of substances like alcohol, tobacco and prescription medications. Toward the end of his life, Rothko took Sinequan and Valium, along with a host of other substances to treat high blood pressure, gout, anxiety and depression. The son of a pharmacist and the subject of debate between his own doctors, Rothko was overcome by the very substances designed to heal him.
On February 25, 1970, the 66-year-old artist was found dead, having succumbed to depression by overdosing and cutting his wrist. But Rothko isn’t the only one betrayed by substances that are supposed to soothe. Like many, he turned to alcohol to cope with life’s struggles, drinking in excess while using prescription medications. These drugs can be helpful when used responsibly, but can be life-threatening and addictive when misused or misunderstood. Mark Rothko’s two doctors even debated his treatment, placing it in the center of a timeless medical argument over treatment options and managing multiple providers. Rothko’s abstract expressionism defined an era of art history, but also revealed the need for more comprehensive mental and behavioral health care.
Art has long been a form of self-expression and realization, inspiring generations through the subtle life messages that paint and canvas can reveal. It can also be a powerful form of therapy. However, many of the world’s most famous artists have legacies defined by mental illness and substance use disorder, a testament to the need for additional forms of therapy and health management. Instead of turning to substances like drugs and alcohol, true healing is possible when we work to understand emotional trauma, life events and mental health.