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Triumph and Tragedy in History

by Hannah Bauer and Melanie Shefchik

2019-05 (1) Melanie & Hannah - Regionals at UWGB-optHannah Bauer and Melanie Shefchik shared their project analyzing the perceptions of Vincent Van Gogh's art and mental health today. Please consider supporting their research and efforts for National History Day.

Overview: National History Day (NHD) is a competition that asks participants to explore a topic that fits into an annual theme. This year's theme was "Triumph and Tragedy in History." You may choose to compete as a group or individual exhibit, documentary, performance, website, or paper. Each category competes separately from the other categories (group exhibits do not compete against individual exhibits). Melanie and I had participated in National History Day at the middle school (junior) level. As 7th graders, we created an exhibit and advanced to the state contest. Our district does not offer any opportunities for NHD at the high school (senior) level, so we reached out to our old coordinator and seventh grade social studies teacher, Kelly Clement. We worked with Ms. Clement to register for the competition and get ready to research our project.2019-05 (2) Melanie & Hannah - State at UW-Madison-opt

We decided on Vincent Van Gogh as our topic, as there are many arguments for both triumph and tragedy in his lifetime. He was a very famous painter but also suffered from many mental illnesses and ended up committing suicide. We wanted to explore the parallels of his art style and mental health and how they affected one another. The first competition we attended was regionals at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. At each competition, you have a interview time where a team of judges examine your project and ask questions about the topic. At regionals, you are not told if you make it into runoff or final round judging, which leaves just your exhibit to stand alone with the judges. We found out we had advanced on to the State Competition, which was about a month later at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. At State, you are told about final rounds, but still your exhibit must stand alone. We found out that we had proceeded to Nationals. Nationals is held at the University of Maryland June 9-13.

Unfortunately, we are going on a band trip in New Orleans June 10-14. We found a way to fly out of NO to DC and back in just a day to compete and return to the band trip. However, flying the exhibit would be difficult because we do not want it to be damaged, so my mom is driving to DC a couple days before. Due to this conflict, our trips to DC have become significantly more expensive, meaning that we have been holding fundraisers from various organizations and business. Registration alone is $150 per person. The De Pere Historical Society, De Pere Kiwanis, and First Presbyterian Church GB have been kind enough to support us in this educational journey. (Editor's note: If you would like to help Hannah and Melody with their expenses, checks can be made out to Kevin Bauer for Hannah, and Melanie Shefchik for Melanie.) We are very excited to travel to DC to compete in Nationals, as 2 projects from each category are chosen from the State to compete. That totals to 36 projects sent to nationals out of about 16,000 from each state. 

2019-05 (3) Melanie & Hannah - State at UW-Madison-optThesis: Vincent Van Gogh made a lasting impression on the world with his artistic and stylistic triumphs; however, he suppressed his naturally dark style in order to assimilate to the bright styles of other artists so that his mental illnesses stayed hidden. 

Triumph: A majority of people know of Vincent Van Gogh and his famous ‘Starry Night’, but Van Gogh painted a plethora of exquisite art pieces that are just as stunning as the aforementioned. He was a leader in the world of art as he combined impressionist styles and learned from the likes of Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, and Paul Gauguin. Van Gogh’s naturally dark style of art was influenced by these artists in a way where he attempted to add brighter colors. Van Gogh’s unique styles paved the way of some modern art styles. Many people are familiar with the works of Van Gogh, and he is often regarded as one of the most famous painters of his time; however, many are also aware of the troubles he faced and the tragedy of the end of his life.

Tragedy: Vincent Van Gogh committed suicide on July 29th, 1890 at the age of 37. He died just two weeks after being released from the asylum at Saint-Remy, saying it was “for the good of all.” Van Gogh never reaped the benefits of his fame, and lived impoverished for the majority of his life. His painting ‘Bedroom in Arles’ depicts his bedroom in Arles, France that is small, cramped, dark, and holds few raggedy belongings. Although there is much dispute, most professionals agree that Van Gogh suffered from an unpleasant selection of mental and physical issues such as severe bipolar depression, epilepsy, lead poisoning, acute intermittent porphyria and Meniere’s disease.2019-05 (4) A glimpse of Nationals improvements & preparation-opt

The Letters: A database contained every letter Van Gogh wrote. He wrote to his brother, Theo, and other artists such as Paul Gauguin and Emilie Bernard. The last letter, dated July 23rd, 1890, is addressed to Van Gogh’s brother. The letter seems optimistic, saying “More soon. Look after yourself, and good luck in business,” as he finishes the letter. There is little evidence of his mental illness in this letter other than the phrase, “I’d perhaps like to write to you about many things, but first the desire has passed to such a degree, then I sense the pointlessness.” The letter, written just 5 days before Van Gogh committed suicide, shows the unpredictability of illness. Van Gogh was religious before pursuing art!

Art Analysis: Van Gogh painted many pieces, but the stark differences between each painting reflects Van Gogh’s lifestyle. When he was happier, he would paint in a dark style, using greens, browns, blacks, and grays. This more ‘depressing’ post-impressionist style was Van Gogh’s natural style, and he painted pictures such as The Potato Eaters, The Cottage, and Skull of a Skeleton with a Burning Cigarette when he was happiest. Van Gogh’s more recognizable paintings, such as Starry Night and Sunflowers are his attempts to mimic the styles of other artists of the time. These paintings are an effort to suppress the effects of his mental illnesses. In short, Van Gogh utilized happier tones such as yellow and blue to appear happier to others.

Bipolar Disorder

“A mental health condition that causes extreme mood swings that include emotional highs (mania or hypomania) and lows (depression).”


“Epilepsy is a central nervous system (neurological) disorder in which brain activity becomes abnormal, causing seizures or periods of unusual behavior, sensations, and sometimes loss of awareness.”

Lead Poisoning

“Lead poisoning occurs when lead builds up in the body, often over months or years. Even small amounts of lead can cause serious health problems… developmental delay, learning difficulties, Irritability, loss of appetite, weight loss, sluggishness and fatigue, abdominal pain, vomiting, constipation, hearing loss, seizures, eating things, such as paint chips, that aren't food (pica).”

Acute Intermittent Porphyria

“A group of disorders that result from a buildup of natural chemicals that produce porphyrin in your body. Severe abdominal pain, pain in your chest, legs or back, constipation or diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, muscle pain, tingling, numbness, weakness or paralysis, red or brown urine, mental changes, such as anxiety, confusion, hallucinations, disorientation or paranoia, breathing problems, urination problems, rapid or irregular heartbeats you can feel (palpitations), high blood pressure, seizures”

Meniere’s disease

“Meniere's disease is a disorder of the inner ear that can lead to dizzy spells (vertigo) and hearing loss. Symptoms include: recurring episodes of vertigo, hearing loss, ringing in the ear (tinnitus), feeling of fullness in the ear.”

Last Published: June 3, 2019 12:15 PM
by Hannah Bauer and Melanie Shefchik Hannah Bauer and Melanie Shefchik shared their project analyzing the perceptions of Vincent Van Gogh's art and mental health today. Please consider supporting their research and efforts for National History Day. Read More