Van Gogh’s Xanthopsia?

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.

 The Night Cafe by Vincent van Gogh, 1888.
The Night Cafe by Vincent van Gogh, 1888.

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.

The potato eaters, Vincent van Gogh, xanthopsia, the vincent van gogh museum, artist daily
The Potato Eaters by Vincent van Gogh, 1885.

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.

Lane With Poplars Near Nuenen by Vincent van Gogh, 1885, xanthopsia, artist daily
Lane With Poplars Near Nuenen by Vincent van Gogh, 1885.

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.

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–John and Ann





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About John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

John Hulsey and his wife, Ann Trusty created the website, The Artist's Road - Painting the World's Beautiful Places.  The Artist's Road inspires with practical art tips and painting techniques for the traveling artist, video painting tutorials and demonstrations, workshop resources, artist profiles and interviews and remarkable painting locations.  The Artist's Road is an artist community for oil, watercolor and pastel artists.  Articles cover intriguing art travel experiences artists have had while painting the world's beautiful places. "I believe I must speak through my art, for the preservation of Nature and the natural landscape from which I take my inspiration and living." John Hulsey is an accomplished artist, author and teacher who has been working professionally for over thirty years. In addition to producing new work for exhibition and teaching workshops, Mr. Hulsey continues to write educational articles about painting for national art magazines, including Watercolor magazine and American Artist Magazine. He has been selected as a "Master Painter of the United States" by International Artist Magazine where his work was previously chosen to be included in the top ten of their international landscape painting competition. He was awarded residencies at Yosemite, Glacier and Rocky Mountain National Parks. "I strive in my art to celebrate the mysteries of Nature - the fleeting light on the landscape, the unimaginable diversity of creatures, the beauty of each leaf and flower." Ann Trusty  is an accomplished third generation artist whose work embodies the natural world and is created through direct observation and translation of her subjects into her paintings. She has found inspiration in the dancing light across the water of the Hudson River (where she had a studio for ten years), as well as the big sky and waving tall grasses of the open plains of the Midwest (her current home). Her work has been exhibited throughout the United States, France and Turkey in both museum and gallery exhibitions, and has been reviewed favorably by the New York Times.

One thought on “Van Gogh’s Xanthopsia?

  1. Van Gogh was a lover of the ‘green fairy’ absinthe. Long term consumption in great quantities, which he did, eventually causes permanent alteration in the perception of colours, mainly in light colours which are perceived as variations of yellows. Voila. Vincent & his yellows.