I have always loved the expressive, colourful work of Van Gogh.
Years ago I saw his work in the Van Gogh Museum. I had not previously realised how liberally he applied his oil paints – the thick texture added another dimension that prints of his works simply cannot capture.
When my friend suggested to visit the immersive exhibition of Van Gogh’s work in London, I was therefore not sure what it could contribute - in the end, we spend around 3 hours exploring the exhibition. We both enjoyed seeing the work from different angles.
The exhibition included extracts from his correspondence –844 of his letters have survived. It made me appreciate that Van Gogh not only had a gift with paint, but also a gift with words. (After the exhibition, I went on a Google “binge” to find out what Van Gogh had to say about his work… I forgot to make notes of which letters the quotes came from, but you should be able to find the sources if this blogpost inspires you to do your own research.)
I was surprised to learn that some people think that Van Gogh was red-green colour blind and that this may explain some of his colour choices.
I am no expert in vision, but I personally don’t see evidence for this. Yes, Van Gogh clearly loved blues and yellows (in one sunflower painting he apparently used 30 different yellows!), but he may have used reds more frequently than is currently apparent.
When researchers examined his flower paintings, they apparently found that Van Gogh used an instable red pigment (cerussite red [plumonacrite]), which has broken down into white crystals after contact with dioxide…
From what I have read, Van Gogh was often not interested to paint realistically: “Accurate drawing, accurate colour, is perhaps not the essential thing to aim at, because the reflection of reality in a mirror, if it could be caught, colour and all, would not be a picture at all, no more than a photograph.”
He often used nature as a launching pad to explore his feelings and emotions. He was what I would describe as a “soul painter.”
Taken one of my favourite Van Gogh painting: “Starry night”. It was inspired by his view from the asylum window. An unknown commentator described the cypress tree in the painting as “irredeemably dark” and a sign of mourning, yet also a sign of hope as it connects the earth with its pain and suffering and the glorious night sky.
A montage showed how Van Gogh may have seen the colours if he had indeed been colour-blind - to me the more “realistic” colours lacked vibrancy, whereas Van Gogh’s colour choices and swirls capture a sense of awe and wonder.
He may have seen colour nuances we often miss. In one of his letters he described his experience of the night: “It often seems to me that night is still more richly coloured than the day; having hues of the most intense violets, blues and greens. If only you pay attention to it you will see that certain stars are lemon-yellow, others pink or a green, blue and forget-me-not brilliance… putting little white dots on the blue-black is not enough to paint a starry sky.”
Describing Starry Night: “Firmament and planets both disappeared, but the mighty breath which gives life to all things and in which all is bound up remained.”
“I don’t know anything with certainty, but seeing the stars makes me dream.”
To my mind, capturing a spiritual experience and something/-one intangible and invisible may require different colour choices!
I guess we will never know for sure whether or not Van Gogh also saw colours differently because he was colour blind.
It is easier to evaluate whether Van Gogh achieved his goal: “I want to touch people with my art. I want them to say ‘he feels deeply, he feels tenderly’.”