Was Van Gogh Color Blind?

If there’s any artist who ever lived and knew color in his soul, it was Vincent Van Gogh. Almost mad with color, Van Gogh owned a box of different-colored yarn just so he could tangibly handle color and literally weave them together to determine how the combinations might look when put into paint. Walk through any Van Gogh exhibition on Earth and you’ll come out the other side drunk on color. But a Japanese medical scientist now contends that Vincent’s unique color palette was literally a function of his vision—specifically, a kind of color blindness. According to this researcher, Van Gogh’s unforgettable wheatfields and starry nights stick in our minds because they lack a color component most of us can see in nature. Is it possible that some of Van Gogh’s power to fascinate comes from a visual disability, or is this researcher demonstrating a different kind of blindness?

While visiting a “Color Vision Experience Room” in Hokkaido, Japan, Kazunori Asada continued his exploration of different types of colorblindness, which the room was able to simulate through filters and other technology. “There were prints of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings in the room,” Asada recounts in his online essay. “Under the filtered light, I found that these paintings looked different from the van Gogh [sic] which I had always seen. I love van Gogh’s paintings and have been fortunate to view a number of the originals in various art museums. This painter has a somewhat strange way to use color [sic]. Although the use of color is rich, lines of different colors run concurrently, or a point of different color suddenly appears. I’ve heard it conjectured that van Gogh had color vision deficiency.” (Please note that English is not Mr. Asada first language.) In the “Color Vision Experience Room,” however, Asada found that “the incongruity of color and roughness of line had quietly disappeared. And each picture had changed into one of brilliance with very delicate lines and shades. This was truly wonderful experience.”

Asada includes several “before” and “after” versions of Van Gogh paintings in which the “afters” have been corrected for Van Gogh’s moderate lack of receptors for the color red. The result is a much more true-to-nature color palette and less harsh transitions from color to color. In an update to his online essay after several news outlets jumped on the idea, Asada claims that he’s “uninterested about what kind of color vison type Gogh himself has, and am not going to find out it at all.” According to the good doctor, reporters are mistaken if they write “Asada said, ‘Gogh was colorblind.’” The real message Asada wants to convey, at least in his update, is that color-deficient people can look at Van Gogh’s paintings and see them in a different, but still wonderful way. (Again, Asada’s English leads to a few difficulties in understanding the finer distinctions of his argument.)

When Asada writes in his original article that “van Gogh is the exemplar of ‘the color deficient individual is sometimes superior to the color normal color individual,’” it sounds like he’s ascribing some color deficiency or blindness to the artist. Rather than a bad thing, van Gogh’s color blindness turns out to be a good thing in terms of his art. The same way a blind person’s sense of hearing improves as compensation, van Gogh’s color deficiency led him to choose paint colors that matched how the world looked like to him.

van Gogh’s art broke all the rules in such a radical way that we’re still trying to find some explanation. Mental instability’s had its day, so perhaps color deficiency is on the rise. In a similar way, Claude Monet’s cataracts have slowly gained credit for the development of Impressionism. Jean Dominique Rey and Denis Rouart’s Monet: Water Lilies, The Complete Series (which I reviewed here in 2009) discussed Monet’s physical vision’s impact on his artistic vision. “Monet’s fidelity to whatever he perceived through his visual organ, even when this was defective” never faltered, Rouart wrote, which led Roualt to refuse to call Monet an abstract artist but rather a “tachist.” For Roualt, Monet always worked from his own perception of nature and never strayed into pure, selfish imagination. In the same way, van Gogh continued to hold onto nature in his art, but a nature filtered through his actual vision as well as his artistic vision. I don’t know if van Gogh was color deficient or partially color blind, but even I can see that the Sunflowers seem dead when “normalized” by Asada’s technology. Where he sees clarity, I see soullessness. van Gogh painted the spirit of the sunflower rather than the naked architecture of the plant. Asada raises an interesting question, but we need to avoid blinding ourselves to the real answer found in the paintings.

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