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Van gogh and the obsession of yellow: style or side effect

Vincent Van Gogh is well known for his yellow addiction, which might be related to a health condition [1]. There are several theories about his possible diseases, including epilepsy, Meniere’s disease, and acute intermittent porphyria [2,3,4,5,6].

This yellow obsession makes professionals wonder: were those only reflection of his mind or how he saw the world?

There are different theories around this however, this hypothesis will focus on one theory: Xanthopsia. Xanthopsia is a rare condition that causes yellow vision which can also occur due to medications. Digitalis rarely causes yellow vision following bilirubin deposition in the eye which possibly explains his yellow addiction according to some specialists [7,8,9]. It is well known that he was treated by the famous physician Paul Gachet during the 19th century (Fig. 1). During that time foxglove plant, which is the main ingredient of digitalis, was used for the treatment of epilepsy and mania [2, 10,11,12,13].

Fig. 1
figure1

Portrait of Dr. Paul Gachet

Although, we don’t have the medical recordings of him, it is possible that Gachet used digoxin on him considering Gogh painted him several times with foxglove plants [2, 14, 15].

Moreover, the yellow color dominates his paintings he painted during his hospital stay.

Although there are several reasons to consider this yellow love is not natural, the opposite seems more reliable because of several reasons.

First, his treatment under Gachet lasted only 2 months. Studies suggest 2 months are not enough for the development of xanthopsia [16].

Second, Gachet was known for his careful drug usage and even wrote a scientific paper about digoxin dosage.

Finally, he was painting dominantly yellow for nearly all his artistic life, even though he was not using digitalis [14, 17, 18].

In conclusion, it is obvious that Van Gogh suffered from some serious health problems. But multiple different reasons make it unlikely that the artist has suffered from xanthopsia.

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Correspondence to Doğaç Demir.

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Demir, D., Görkey, Ş. Van gogh and the obsession of yellow: style or side effect. Eye 33, 165–166 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41433-018-0204-2

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