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Xanthopsia and van Gogh's yellow palette

Eye volume 5, pages 503510 (1991) | Download Citation

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Abstract

A survey of van Gogh'S worh from 1886 to 1890 indicated that paintings with a yellow dominance were numerous, episodic, and multi-regional. His underlying illness, by his own admission, affected his life and work; furthermore, episodes of malnutrition, substance abuse, environmental exposure, and drug experimentation (all evident from correspondence) exacerbated his condition. Accordingly, we reviewed plausible agents that might have modified the artist's colour perception. Xanthopsia due to overdosage of digitalis or santonin is well documented elsewhere, but evidence of useage of either drug by van Gogh cannot be substantiated. It is unlikely that ageing of the human lens was an influence because of the artist's youth. Sunstroke is too restrictive to fit the multiplicity of regions and motifs. Hallucinations induced by absinthe, the popular liqueur of the period, may explain particular canvases but not the majority of ‘high yellow’ paintings. Van Gogh's proclivity for exaggerated colours and his embrace of yellow in particular are clear from his letters and, in contradistinction to chemical or physical insults modifying perception, artistic preference is the best working hypothesis to explain the yellow dominance in his palette.

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Affiliations

  1. Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, University of Kansas Medical Center, Kansas City, Kansas, USA 66103

    • Wilfred Niels Arnold
  2. Department of Medicine, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine, Kansas City, Missouri, USA 64108

    • Loretta S Loftus

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Correspondence to Wilfred Niels Arnold.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/eye.1991.93

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