A! Magazine for the Arts

Top left to right: Ludwig van Beethoven and Charles Dickens; bottom left to right: Gaetano Donizetti and Patty Duke.

Top left to right: Ludwig van Beethoven and Charles Dickens; bottom left to right: Gaetano Donizetti and Patty Duke.

Other Famous Artists Who Suffered from Mental Illnesses

January 26, 2011

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) is widely regarded as one of the greatest masters of musical construction, sometimes sketching the architecture of a movement before he had decided upon the subject matter. The brilliant composer experienced bipolar disorder, documented in The Key to Genius: Manic Depression and the Creative Life by D. Jablow Hershman and Julian Lieb.

Charles Dickens (1812-1870) is best known as the author of A Christmas Carol, as well as Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Bleak House, and more. One of the greatest authors in the English language, he suffered from clinical depression, documented in Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph by Edgar Johnson.

Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848), the famous opera composer, suffered from bipolar disorder, documented in Donizetti and the World Opera in Italy, Paris and Vienna in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century by Herbert Weinstock. Donizetti's most famous work is Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), which chronicles the heroine's descent into madness as a result of a doomed love affair.

• Academy Award-winning actress Patty Duke (b. 1946) went from troubled childhood stardom to a sparkling career on television and in film. She told of her bipolar disorder in her autobiography and made-for-TV move Call Me Anna and A Brilliant Madness: Living with Manic-Depressive Illness, co-authored by Gloria Hochman.

Zelda Fitzgerald (1900-1948) served as a model for the glamorous and worldly heroines of her husband F. Scott Fitzgerald's novels. At age 25, Zelda began painting - the one artistic expression that she practiced throughout her life. At 27, she became obsessed with ballet and embarked on a grueling routine that resulted in a nervous breakdown in 1930. Her mental health deteriorated and she was diagnosed as schizophrenic. Despite her illness, she remained lucid for long periods and spent the majority of her days painting. Ironically, in the 1930s she created some of her best work, including her only novel, Save Me the Waltz. She spent the last 18 years of her life in and out of institutions and died in a hospital fire at the age of 48.

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) was a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist whose most famous works are A Farewell to Arms and The Old Man and the Sea. He wrote The Sun Also Rises, a novel about American expatriates in Paris, and For Whom the Bell Tolls, a fictional account of the Spanish Civil War which Hemingway had covered as a correspondent in the 1930s. The author's suicidal depression is examined in the True Gen: An Intimate Portrait of Ernest Hemingway by Those Who Knew Him by Denis Brian.

John Keats (1795-1821) was an English romantic poet who died in his twenties from tuberculosis, but he suffered from mental illness, documented in The Dynamics of Creation by Anthony Storr and The Broken Brain: The Biological Revolution in Psychiatry by Nancy Andreasen, M.D. In his "Ode to a Nightingale," Keats flirts with the idea of following the bird at dusk, into the darkness and oblivion of death: "Darkling, I listen; and for many a time/ I have been half in love with easeful Death,/ Call'd him soft names in many a mused rhyme... Now more than ever seems it rich to die/ To cease upon the midnight with no pain/ While thou art pouring out thy soul abroad/In such an ecstasy!'

• English actress Vivien Leigh (1913-1967) had what is now known as bipolar disorder and earned a reputation for being difficult to work with, documented in Vivien Leigh: A Biography by Ann Edwards. Nevertheless, she won two Academy Awards for playing Southern belles: Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind and Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. On stage, she played roles ranging from the heroines of Noel Coward and George Bernard Shaw comedies to classic Shakespearean characters such as Ophelia, Cleopatra, Juliet and Lady Macbeth.

Michelangelo (1475-1564), one of the world's greatest artistic geniuses, had lifelong battles with powerful patrons and the heartbreak of failed relationships and artistic dreams unrealized. His mental illness is discussed in The Dynamics of Creation by Anthony Storr. Michelangelo considered himself first and foremost a sculptor, not a painter. His most famous works include the figure of David and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican at Rome.

Playwright Eugene O'Neill (1888-1953) suffered from clinical depression, documented in Eugene O'Neill by Olivia E. Coolidge. O'Neill won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936 and several Pulitzer Prizes for Drama (Beyond the Horizon in 1920, Anna Christie in 1922, Strange Interlude in 1928, and Long Day's Journey Into Night in 1957). According to a PBS documentary, "American Masters," O'Neill addressed the difficulties of human society with a deep psychological complexity through his experimental and emotionally probing dramas. O'Neill's disdain for the commercial realities of the theater world he was born into led him to produce works of importance and integrity.

• Poet and novelist Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) ended her lifelong struggle with clinical depression by taking her own life, as reported in A Closer Look at Ariel: A Memory of Sylvia Plath by Nancy Hunter-Steiner. Plath had her first poem published at age 8 and had stories and poems published almost constantly for the rest of her life. In 1953, she suffered a nervous breakdown and tried to kill herself, ending up in the psychiatric ward of a Boston hospital. In 1963, she succeeded in killing herself two weeks after the publication of her only novel, The Bell Jar, considered by many to be the first feminist novel. She was just 30 years old and had two young children.

Robert Schumann (1810-1856) was a German composer of the Romantic era of classical music. His works include collections of piano pieces, Carnaval and Kreisleriana; four symphonies (including the Spring and the Rhenish Symphonies); three string quartets; his Piano Concerto in A Minor; and songs (Lieder) including his Dichterlieder (Songs of a Poet) cycle. The composer had a nervous breakdown in 1844. After he attempted suicide by throwing himself into the Rhine in 1854, he was taken to a private asylum and remained there until his death.

Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) revealed the extent of his own mental illness in the memoir Confession. A Russian writer many consider to have been one of the world's greatest novelists, his literary masterpieces, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, represent the peak of realist fiction. Tolstoy's talents as essayist, dramatist, and educational reformer also made him the most influential member of the aristocratic Tolstoy family. His experiences are also discussed in The Dynamics of Creation by Anthony Storr and The Inner World of Mental Illness: A Series of First Person Accounts of What It Was Like by Bert Kaplan.

• Playwright Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) gave a personal account of his struggle with clinical depression in his own Memoirs. His experience is also documented in Five O'Clock Angel: Letters of Tennessee Williams to Maria St. Just, 1948-1982; The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams by Donald Spoto, and Tennessee: Cry of the Heart by Dotson. Williams, whose innovative drama and sense of lyricism were a major force in the postwar American theater, was the author of more than 24 full-length plays, including The Glass Menagerie, The Night of the Iguana, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The latter two won Pulitzer Prizes. Although seldom intentionally autobiographical, the plays were almost all intensely personal, torn from his private anguishes and anxieties. William wrote with deep sympathy and expansive humor about outcasts in our society.

• British novelist Virginia Woolf (1881-1941) experienced the mood swings of bipolar disorder characterized by feverish periods of writing and weeks immersed in gloom. Although her mental illness ultimately led to her suicide, her legacy lives on through the body of her creative works. In To the Lighthouse, Orlando and her landmark feminist essay A Room of One's Own, Woolf explored the artistic, sexual and religious roles that women held at this monumental time in women's history. An early champion of stream-of-consciousness, Woolf inspired generations of authors. Michael Cunningham's 1998 Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, The Hours, is about women deeply affected by Woolf's 1923 novel Mrs. Dalloway.

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