Did Van Gogh’s Yellows Contribute to his Blues?

“There is a sun, a light that for want of a better word I can only call yellow, pale sulphur yellow, pale golden citron. How lovely yellow is! And how much better I shall see the North!” –Vincent Van Gogh letter to his brother, Theo Van Gogh, Arles, August 13, 1888

Arles paintings Vincent Van Gogh

Van Gogh lived in Arles for just over a year, from February 1888 though May 1889. During this period, he created over 180 paintings, an astounding number and some considered to be his best works. Influenced in part by the light and colours of southern France, his paintings from this period are infused with with intense, saturated colours. Of greater interest to me is his use of colour to convey emotion, particularly his use of yellow.

After moving into the little yellow house intended to become the Studio of the South, Van Gogh set about decorating the house for the arrival of his guests,  notably for Gauguin, whom Van Gogh very much admired. Van Gogh describes his vision for one of the rooms to his brother Theo (letter dated September 9, 1888),

“The room you will have then, or Gauguin if he comes, will have white walls with a decoration of great yellow sunflowers. In the morning, when you open the window, you see the green of the gardens and the rising sun, and the road into the town. But you will see these great pictures of the sunflowers, 12 or 14 to the bunch, crammed into this tiny boudoir with its pretty bed and everything else dainty. It will not be commonplace.”

Sunflowers Vincent Van Gogh

Van Gogh completed four sunflower paintings prior to Gauguin’s arrival. The smallest, of three sunflowers, was 73 cm x 60 cm, the others were about 90 cm x 70 cm.  Having experienced the energy of Still Life: Vase with Fifteen Flowers in a spacious gallery setting, I can imagine the bold visual impact these paintings presented when hung in the small cramped rooms of the yellow house. As Gauguin wrote,

“In my yellow room, sunflowers with purple eyes stand out against a yellow background; the ends of their stalks bathe in a yellow pot on a yellow table. In one corner of the painting, the painter’s signature: Vincent. And the yellow sun, coming through the yellow curtains of my room, floods all this flowering with gold, and in the morning, when I wake up in my bed, I have the impression that it all smells very good.”

The Night Cafe Vincent Van Gogh

If I could hang one of Van Gogh’s Arle’s period paintings in my home, it would be The Night Café in the Place Lamartine, with its jarring palette of orange reds, citrus greens and varying yellows. Van Gogh competed the painting over three nights at the Café de la Gare. The man standing is Monsieur Ginoux, he and his wife were the café’s proprietors. Ginoux’s white coat and manner create a sharp contrast to the patrons scattered about the room. The use of colour and line keeps your eyes in constant motion. Notice how Van Gogh chose a bright yellow for the room beyond, yet a dingy yellow in the café. The former conveys cheerfulness, the other despair.

“I’ve tried to express the terrible human passions with the red and the green. The room is blood-red and dull yellow, a green billiard table in the centre, 4 lemon yellow lamps with an orange and green glow. Everywhere it’s a battle and an antithesis of the most different greens and reds; in the characters of the sleeping ruffians, small in the empty, high room, some purple and blue. The blood-red and the yellow-green of the billiard table, for example, contrast with the little bit of delicate Louis XV green of the counter, where there’s a pink bouquet. The white clothes of the owner, watching over things from a corner in this furnace, become lemon yellow, pale luminous green.” – letter to Theo, September 8, 1888.

“In my picture of the “Night Café” I have tried to express the idea that the café is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad or commit a crime. So I have tried to express, as it were, the powers of darkness in a low public house, by soft Louis XV green and malachite, contrasting with yellow-green and harsh blue-greens, and all this in an atmosphere like a devil’s furnace, of pale sulphur.” – letter to Theo, September 9, 1888.

“I have just finished a canvas representing the interior of a night café lighted with lamps. A number of poor night wanderers are asleep in a corner. The room is painted red, and in it, under the gaslight, a green billiard table casts an immense shadow on the boarded floor. There are six or seven different reds in this canvas, from blood-red to delicate pink, contrasting with as many pale or deep greens…The more ugly, old, vicious, ill, poor I get, the more I want to take my revenge by producing a brilliant colour, well-arranged, resplendent.” – letter to his sister Wil, September 9 and 16, 1888

Compare Van Gogh’s depiction of the café with Gauguin’s version painted shortly after arriving in Arles. The focus of Gauguin’s Night Café at Arles is Madame Ginoux. His pallette more restrained than Van Gogh’s. His figures more detailed, his brushstrokes flat compared to Van Gogh’s dynamic ones. The perspective normal versus Van Gogh’s skewed view. Gauguin’s version painted in the studio, Van Gogh’s in situ. Overall a restrained mood, conveying boredom rather than despair.  Inside the Night Cafe Paul Gaugin

While Van Gogh liked Gauguin’s version of the café, “Gauguin has at the moment a painting under way of same night café that I also painted, but with figures seen in the brothels. It promises to turn out beautiful.”–letter to Bernard, Gauguin didn’t, “I’ve also done a café which Vincent likes very much and I like rather less. Basically it isn’t my cup of tea and the coarse local color doesn’t suit me. I like it well enough in paintings by other people, but for myself I’m always apprehensive. It’s purely a matter of education: One cannot remake oneself…The picture is crossed by a band of blue smoke, but the figure in front is much too neat and stiff. Oh well.” –The Art Institute of Chicago

The café and Madam Ginoux were two of a number of subjects painted by both Van Gogh and Gauguin while in Arles, each interpreted differently, with colour being one of the differentiators.

“Oh yes! he loved yellow, did good Vincent, the painter from Holland, gleams of sunlight warming his soul, which detested fog. A craving for warmth. When the two of us were together in Arles, both of us insane, and constantly at war over beautiful colors, I adored red; where could I find a perfect vermilion? He [Vincent], taking his yellowest brush, wrote on the suddenly purple wall:

Je suis sain d’Esprit.     [I am of sound mind]
Je suis Saint-Esprit.”    [I am the Holy Ghost]

Paul Gauguin, article published in Essais d’Art Libre, January 1894

Consider for a moment, the psychology of colour.

Both red and yellow are stimulating. Yellow, an emotional colour, creates feelings of optimism, creativity and self-esteem. Red, a colour of action, creates energy, excitement and activity. Taken to the extreme however, yellow can induce feelings of fear, anxiety and depression. Red is known to generate aggression, defiance and fight or flight reactions.

Picture the two men, living in a small home, passionately creating art at a frenzied pace (during their 9 weeks together, Van Gogh created 36 paintings, Gauguin 21), often under absinthe’s influence, dealing with financial stress, illness and even of the negative health impacts of the paints themselves.  It’s not surprising that their collaboration ended poorly.  Given they were surrounded by Van Gogh’s yellows and, to a lesser degree, Gauguin’s reds, I wonder, did the psychology of colour play a role in their violent argument, Gauguin’s sudden departure and Van Gogh’s final breakdown?

2 thoughts on “Did Van Gogh’s Yellows Contribute to his Blues?

    1. Sara Post author

      Thanks for your comment. I started out with a different topic. The colour concept came to me as I read through the letters and articles written by Van Gogh and Gauguin. The history of the Studio of the South is heart wrenching. Van Gogh was so incredibly looking forward to Gauguin’s visit.

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