How van Gogh Saw the Color Wheel
Vincent van Gogh was an artistic genius, no question. Although he may well have had psychological troubles, there is no proof his distinctive use of color, especially those intense yellows, arose from an overdose of any pharmacologically active drugs such as digitalis.
There has been a mountain of speculation by art historians seeking to explain van Gogh’s extraordinary use of color as proof of a pattern of drug abuse. The most popular hypothesis is that he was given digitalis by Dr. Felix Rey in Arles to treat seizures.
A high-concentration of digitalis used over a period of time can induce xanthopsia, which causes a yellowing of the media of the eye, resulting in yellow vision. Cataracts and jaundice can produce similar effects. However, it is clear the dosages and effects of digitalis were well-known at that time, and the amount required to cause xanthopsia would have been so high it most likely would have been fatal.
If van Gogh did suffer from xanthopsia, as some have suggested, a significant number of his paintings would show a dominance of yellows with no white, blue, or violet. A few canvasses meet that description, such as The Night Cafe, but many more of his yellow paintings are balanced with an abundance of blues and sometimes whites as well, colors he would not have been able to perceive.
Xanthopsia, or Color Experiments?
What is known for certain, from van Gogh’s own letters, is that he was intentionally conducting color experiments in his paintings. His letters are filled with discourses about the importance of color and its use.
As a young painter in Holland, he had loved yellow and used it liberally in his early paintings, as in The Potato Eaters and Lane with Poplars, Nuenen.
In August of 1884, he purchased Charles Blanc’s Grammaire des arts du dessin: architecture, sculpture, peinture, which proposed a basic color theory using a triangular arrangement for red, green and blue. In a letter he wrote referring to Blanc’s color theory in 1886, van Gogh described a series of flower paintings he was working on:
“I have made a series of color studies … seeking oppositions of blue with orange, red and green, yellow and violet … trying to render intense color and not a gray harmony.”
Again and again, his letters emphasize that he was experimenting with color harmonies and shapes. He realized early on that he could express emotion through color, and he needn’t mimic the colors of nature to make a powerful landscape painting.
Perhaps the most iconic example of his deliberate study of color relationships is embodied in The Night Cafe. He wrote copious notes about the weird color effects caused by the citron yellow lamps, the blood red walls and the green pool table.
He was so captivated by the scene, he noted that “for three nights running I sat up to paint and went to bed during the day,” rather than rely on memory.
Hindsight is 20/20, only when we can rely on the words of the artist rather than look through yellow-tinted glasses.
Read more about this in the fascinating book by Michael F. Marmor and James G. Ravin, The Artist’s Eyes.