Van Gogh’s “colorblindness” and the subjectivity of perception

Color simulation
Vincent Van Gogh, “Wheat Field behind St. Paul Hospital with a Reaper” (1889)

I recently read an article on ArtInfo about a medical student in Japan, Kazunori Asada, who wrote an essay claiming to have proven that the artist Van Gogh was colorblind. The article– entitled “Japanese Scientist says Vincent van Gogh Was Colorblind– But Does it Matter?”– discusses how Asada was inspired by an experience at the Color Vision Experience Room at Hokkaido, which is “an immersive simulator that makes it possible to perceive color the way people with different types of colorblindness might experience it.” Asada ran several images of Van Gogh paintings through a color simulator, and you can see one of the results on the right. The gorgeous reds are eliminated and the painting overall looks to be more of a cool yellow.

The author of the article, Kyle Chayka, brings up several really excellent issues/points: 1) The images Asada used were digital images, therefore subject to the color variance of the individual computer screen (i.e. his computer could have been picking up more red than another computer would), or that of the scanner which scanned these reproductions picked up more red, or that of the images themselves, which may have been printed with a higher content of magenta in the ink; 2) Asada’s judgment that the “corrected” color simulations demonstrate more “‘brilliance with very delicate shades and lines'” (as opposed to an “‘incongruity of color and roughness of line'”) is extraordinarily subjective; and 3) the question of how one judges creativity. I found the following passage to be particularly moving:

How can we argue that van Gogh’s paintings look better through a filter? To assume that the painter’s provocative artistic choices were simply the result of a medical condition is to completely disregard his own creativity. Van Gogh’s colors are meant to clash; the unorthodox pairings were part of the Post-Impressionist and Fauvist aesthetic. Or were Paul Gauguin and André Derain also colorblind?

The article concludes with the question of whether genius-artists are innovative because of their biology or because they are creative pioneers, and he ultimately leans towards the latter. While I too prefer this sentiment– I personally think that the claim that Van Gogh was colorblind is absolutely ridiculous and unsubstantiated (if he was colorblind, he would have exhibited a similar color palette in his entire oeuvre, but his earlier works utilized more subdued earth tones)– a part of me wants to play devil’s advocate. What if he was colorblind? Beyond saying that “it doesn’t matter,” what can deficiencies in vision show us about our own perceptions of the world? 

Edgar Degas, “Madame Alexis Rouart et ses enfants” (c. 1905)

I am going to confess right now that my line of thinking is heavily influenced by what I’ve been reading for one of my classes, which, ironically enough, centers around another Impressionist, Edgar Degas. The essay I am specifically referring to, “Degas and the Contingency of Vision” by Richard Kendall, was featured in The Burlington Magazine in a special issue on Degas in March 1988.

It is a (relatively) widely known fact that Degas had vision problems. He eventually became blind, which forced him to give up art-making. However, contrary to the popular belief that he basically developed poor eyesight in a relatively short span of time, which many believe first manifested itself in his increased interest in sculpture (which is seen as more tactile than visual), Kendall argues that his eye problems had been coming on for decades. Indeed, according to historical records– namely personal correspondence and portraits of the artist, along with other documents– he exhibited symptoms of myopia (aka near-sightedness) as far back as the 1860s. His vision got progressively worse over the years, particularly after the Siege of Paris, in which he was subjected to extreme cold and malnutrition as the city froze and starved to death. After this he became photophobic (not actually afraid of light, but rather intolerant of it), developed cloudiness in his vision, and later blind spots. The photophobia led to his focus on indoor subjects at a close range. He lost the vision in his right eye first, which, at first blush, would make one think that he couldn’t see “properly” because he was relying on the skewed depth of field caused by monocular vision. But what is “proper”?

Edgar Degas, “Woman with Field Glasses” (c. 1865)

Kendall further argues that Degas used his vision problems to portray the world in a different way. “Degas… recognised the crucial distinction between two factors which affect human perception: the peculiarities of an individual’s eyesight which vary slightly from one set of eyes to another, whether healthy or not; and, more importantly, that individual’s power to choose” (183). The act of painting is an act of will, another fact that Degas was acutely aware of. His paintings emphasize things like color, composition, and light source; he also demonstrated a sort of selective focus, highlighting certain objects or subjects over others. Even his subject matter focused on the actual act of “seeing,” as evidenced in the example on the right. As his vision deteriorated, his awareness of vision only became heightened in his work. The claims that he became “a slave” to his deteriorating eyesight do not take into account the full spectrum of his career: though he worked on more sculpture in his later career, he had worked work three-dimensionally in the 1850’s and 1860’s as well; the same goes for pastels, which he may have chosen more for convenience and affordability.

This new claim that Van Gogh was colorblind is yet another notch on the Impressionist “vision impairment” bedpost (although he was technically a Post-Impressionist). Contemporaneous critics constantly dogged the group with insults about their supposed vision deficiencies. Degas, as demonstrated above, actually did have vision problems of his own, but they did not necessarily impede his work. Claude Monet also had “vision issues,” which led to the removal of the lens from one of his eyes, which had become clouded due to cataracts. This removal, interestingly enough, made his work turn in a much more blue direction, as he was then able to see some of the ultraviolet spectrum. These are proven “case-in-points.”

An example of an Ishihara plate

However, we cannot actually prove that Van Gogh was colorblind. Though the first paper on colorblindness was published in 1798 by English chemist John Dalton, who was himself colorblind, the earliest date I can find for any sort of colorblindness test (the Williams lantern color sense test, invented by Dr. Charles H. Williams) is 1899, nearly a decade after Van Gogh died from complications due to self-inflicted injuries. One of the most popular colorblindness tests that is used today is the Ishihara test, which was invented in Tokyo in 1917 by Dr. Shinobu Ishihara. Thus, while we have plenty of firsthand evidence that Degas had vision problems– because he certainly was aware of them– we don’t have any from Van Gogh because, if he was colorblind, he likely didn’t know it. And as far as I know, none of his contemporaries indicated such a notion either (this is further supported by the fact that this “study” seems to be news to peoples’ ears).

If we cannot legitimately prove that Van Gogh was in fact colorblind, how can we apply an argument similar to Kendall’s to this scenario? If we regard Asada’s hypothesis as sound and move beyond Chayka’s insistence that a) the Impressionists were visionaries who liked juxtaposing colors and b) that it doesn’t matter anyway if Van Gogh was colorblind, we can look at his color choices as a way of making us see in the way that he saw the world through his eyes. This reveals the remarkable subjectivity of our own vision: one person’s yellow may be another person’s orange. My boyfriend and I have bickered over whether or not one of my dresses is blue or blue-green (for the record, it is blue-green, damn it, with a little more blue than green). This almost echoes Asada’s sentiment that the paintings became “more beautiful” once they had gone through the color simulator. However, that subjectivity is almost psychological; color subjectivity, in some regards, can be considered biological.

Therefore, if Van Gogh was indeed colorblind (and that is a big “if”), his color choices show us another way to see the world. Which, as Chayka pointed out, is exactly what the Impressionists were trying to do. The only thing that has changed here is why we are being shown a new way of seeing. I get the feeling that Asada’s study is not getting a whole lot of legitimate recognition because of the author’s bias about what looks right and what doesn’t, but it has still provided some interesting food for thought.


One thought on “Van Gogh’s “colorblindness” and the subjectivity of perception

  1. Pingback: Rediscovering my love of art through Vincent van Gogh | Florence and the Historian

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