Why is van Gogh's yellow so yellow and was the painter “obsessed” with this color?

Looking at the expanses of the Wheat field with flying crows or the series of the magnificent Sunflowers Of Vincent van Gogh (Zundert, 1853 – Auvers-sur-Oise, 1890) the vivid yellow chrome of his paintings, for which the Dutch painter – one of the greatest artists of the nineteenth century, a tormented genius who died prematurely – seemed to have an “obsession”. Many do not know that there could be a medical reason behind the intensity of this hue: the Dutch painter had gods physical and mental health problems (which is why he also cut off his ear) and may have taken an extract of digitalin particular of Digitalis purpurea (a plant with large purple flowers), as a treatment forepilepsy. As a side effect, however, this extract may have triggered the famous “yellow period” by van Gogh. This thesis, on the other hand, does not find full agreement in the scientific community and various scholars dispute it. Let's understand better why.

“Digital” is the term used to indicate plants of the genus Digitalis (including the Digitalis purpurea). In the past, digitalis extracts were used to treat various ailments and diseases. Within digital, in fact, there is also the digoxin, a compound still used today in the treatment of some heart conditions.

From a painting by Van Gogh, Portrait of Doctor Gachet, we know that one of the doctors who treated him, Dr. Gachet, had access to digitalis and therefore some scholars have hypothesized that the doctor may have prescribed an extract of the plant to the painter to try to cure his ailments. Although we do not know whether the extract helped van Gogh, especially if he suffered from epilepsy or porphyria as has been hypothesized, it is possible that it contributed to his artistic production.

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Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Doctor Gachet (in the foreground the plan of the Digitalis purpurea).

Digoxin, in fact, taken in excessive doses, is to all intents and purposes a poison: can lead to the so-called xanthopsiawhich results in the creation of a yellow tone on everything that is observed (which however can also be caused by cataracts) and which most famously struck the painter Monet. Some scholars have therefore hypothesized that this could be the secret of the extraordinary detective story of the series Sunflowers.

Vincent van Gogh, Vase with twelve sunflowers.

Now, Gachet did not report these types of ailments, so there is no reason to think that he gave too strong a dose of the extract to van Gogh. Furthermore, if the Dutch painter had taken the substance for too long, as happened to him with absinthe, he would not have been able to paint, much less produce such wonderful works.

Ultimately, therefore, maybe he just liked the color yellow. This love for colour, however, may also have come from the influence of Japanese painting, very popular in Europe at the time. In this case his pictorial intuition would be nothing other than the result of an extraordinary talentof a constant practice and tireless study.

Vincent van Gogh's yellow vision