Vincent’s Colours and Chaos

The black white brown beige of the Borinage.
Cold, cave like shacks, lit by single lamps.
Peasants huddled to eat a solitary meal,
all the colour drained from their large features.
Outside the door, the leached landscape.
That is where Vincent found inspiration to portray poverty.
Where he realised that his reality would show
the true suffering of people devoid of hope.
He began a journey into acquired obsession.

The Potato Eaters – harmonised
with dreary paint on his palette,
as he was now a painter not a pastor.
He had begun to feel that he had
a sublime connection to Nature, in all its many forms;
as if his whole life was somehow bound by the coils
of something naturally atmospheric.
He would now seek consolation
in the same way that music consoles.
He would use a pencil, not a violin bow.
He felt a movement to being an artist, not a painter

When Vincent asked brother Theo
why his work did not sell in the Paris Gallery,
Theo said a critic had called it
“Strong, coarse and unfinished.”
Vincent replied that he would think differently later.
The struggle to be an artist was driven
by the poverty he suffered and social problems.
But he was finding a kind of spirituality
in the drawings he did of life and nature.

Theo, always supportive, invited him
to come and live in his Paris apartment.
He was delighted to find it had large windows
and he spent time on views, still life and flowers.
Depressed by the cold, grey weather of winter,
in February 1888 he made a sudden decision to move south.
He chose the last station on the line taken,
and found himself in Arles in springtime.
Surrounded by a frenzy of blossoms,
he set about painting immediately.
Attracted to cobalt as a divine colour,
also used to bring atmosphere as an outlining colour.
The same for emerald green.
Rose-coloured peach trees;
apricot trees of very pale rose,
and plum trees of yellowish white.
All were interlaced with many black branches.
Vincent was always willing to sacrifice food for paint,
and the expense of using a colour,
like the new cadmium yellow, was worth it.

He had hoped to pass on this excitement for Gaugin’s visit
and made a plan to use sunflowers.
He planned “a symphony of blue and yellow”,
and by August 1888 he was at the fourth painting
of flowers within a bunch of fourteen.
“One of the decorations of sunflowers
on a royal blue background has a halo.
That is to say that each object is surrounded
by a glow of the complementary colour
of the background against which it stands out.”
He was consumed by colour.

Later, when he advised Theo
to keep the sunflower canvases,
he described one as being “light on light.”
“It is the kind of painting that changes rather to the eye,
and takes on a richness the longer that you look at it.”
This can be verified when seeing a Sunflowers canvas
at the National Gallery in London.
Look at it from different distances,
and gradually allow your eyes to absorb the colours.
You will see the canvas glow.

Gauguin arrived in Arles October 21, 1888.
For a while they got on with sketching during the day,
but began to drink, argue and fight at night.
By January 1889, Gauguin felt bored and trapped
by what he called – “the dirtiest little hole in the south.”
Their fighting led to a wound to Vincent’s ear
and Gauguin prepared to leave.

While talking of leaving,
Gauguin claimed a canvas of Vincent’s sunflowers,
offering in exchange some of his studies.
But Vincent was not easily fooled.
He knew that this would be no exchange,
but a theft of superior quality.
Vincent said emphatically –
“I am definitely keeping my sunflowers.”
His capture by colour had shown
anyone, who cared to see,
that Vincent owned sunflowers.
“The sunflower is mine, in a way.”

After Gauguin had gone,
Vincent moved back to the nighttime
and its distinct palette of colours.
Alone, he could linger and observe
as he frequented the local café.
He described the colours he saw –
“the Night Café is a place where one
can ruin oneself, run mad, or commit a crime.”
“I often think that the night is more alive
 and more richly coloured than the day –.”
“(The Night Café) is one of the ugliest I have done.
It is the equivalent, though different, to The Potato Eaters.
I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity
by means of red and green.
The room is blood-red and dark yellow
with a green billiard table.

In the middle there are four lemon-yellow lamps,
with a glow of orange and yellow.
Everywhere there is a clash and contrast
of the most alien reds and greens
in the figures of little sleeping hooligans;
with the empty dreary room in violet and blue.”

“The loud red, yellow and green
of the billiard table for instance,
contrast with the soft slender
Louis XIV green of the counter,
on which there is a nosegay in rose colour.
The white coat of the patron in vigil,
in the corner of this furnace,
turns lemon-yellow, or pale luminous green . . . ”

This description of a painting
is one of the closest that Vincent gave of a painting –
colour by colour, he explains what he has painted.
He owes his genius to his incredible powers of observation
and his personal homage to colour.
Earlier on, he had done a complete study of colours,
how they interact and harmonise,
how they oppose and blend.
Then, using layers and lines of colours,
he was able to give his interpretation
of the meanings of nature.
It seemed as if nothing was beyond him, but success.
He said – “The more ugly, old, nasty, ill and poor I become,
the more I want to get my own back
by producing vibrant, well-arranged, radiant colour.”

In May 1889, overcome by bouts of depression,
he moved to the mental asylum of St Remy for a year.
He was able to see the hospital garden
and painted – Irises – straight to the canvas
and said that “painting was the lightning conductor for my illness.”
He believed that he could stay sane by constantly painting.

Marigolds in bloom and red soil,
are in a colourful contrast to a bank of irises
with a solitary white bloom.

Sad to say, but many pigments in paints he used
have broken down due to fragile or fugitive properties.
For example, Red Lake used to paint his roses pink,
has now faded to white. A red pigment,
used to colour flowers purple, has faded to blue.
But Vincent knew that Red Lake faded,
so he used thick layers of paint.
He said, “Paintings fade like flowers –
all the more reason to boldly use them too raw –
time will only soften them too much.”

In 2016, scientists were working on his painting –
“Field with Irises near Arles”– from 1888,
which he described in his letters as purple.
The flowers have since faded to blue.
They have the correct methods to restore the irises.

For some of his sunflowers,
Vincent used a fairly new pigment – chrome yellow.
The paint was expensive.
However, the light chrome yellow
is unstable in some light
and his bright strokes are turning a brownish-green colour.
Scientists have found that this darkening can be avoided
by galleries using a type of light
which avoids blue-green wavelengths.

All paints and paintings are chemically
and technically complicated.
Today we have digital technology
which can analyse current to original colour.
It was found that Vincent’s bedroom
had walls that were originally purple,
not blue; and the brown floor was originally pink.
Such colour degradation could be traced
to digitally restore paintings that have faded
due to fugitive pigments or faulty lighting.
Let us hope that the sunflower paintings are now safe.
Would Vincent have approved?

Doctors at St Remy diagnosed epilepsy in Vincent
and probably gave him a drug then used for it – digitalis.
This can cause vision to be masked by yellow.
It is called xanthopsia.
But it also makes white and yellow indistinguishable,
and makes blue appear green.
Vincent’s sunflowers blazed out their yellow
before he went to St Remy.

The Starry Night was painted at St Remy in 1889.
The sky full of astronomical shapes
and swirls seen before sunrise.
A morning star was also included,
which was actually the planet Venus.
He knew how to show turbulence in his work
and had written to his sister – “I am very sensitive to colour
and its particular language, its effect of
complementaries, contrasts, harmonies.”

Between February and April 1890, he 
was overwhelmed by alternating moods
of melancholy and depression.
Many things bothered him.
It is possible that he may have been suffering
from SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder;
as he seemed to become more depressed
during the grey winter months. He said that
the doctors at St Remy were not competent
and he was held like a prisoner,
always under surveillance,
where liberty was sacrificed
and there was no society to mix with.
“I can’t stand it anymore. I must move,
even for a last shift.” One day he would paint
with certainty and calm, and the next day –
“down like a brute.”

“Only when I fall, do I get up again.”
 “I put my heart and soul in my work
and I have lost my mind in the process.”
 “Poetry surrounds us everywhere,
but putting it on paper is, alas,
not so easy as looking at it.”
”The sadness will last forever.”
These are some of Vincent’s sayings
which show how despondent he could be.
Even the sale of his painting The Red Vineyard in 1890,
did not lift his spirits.

When he told Theo that he wanted to leave St Remy,
his brother decided that Auvers would be suitable
as it was nearer to Paris, and the home of Dr Gachet.
This homoeopathic doctor had treated Vincent at St Remy
and did  vision and colour tests on him there in 1889.
He found that all was normal for his age of 36.
Gachet had also treated several artists for neuroses
and had collected paintings from them.

Vincent reported to Theo when he arrived –
“I have seen Dr Gachet who gives me the impression
of being rather eccentric,
but his experience as a doctor
must keep him balanced enough
to combat the nervous trouble
from which he certainly seems to suffer as much as I do.”

Vincent’s incisive first impression was toned down later
to calling him – “a true friend.”
Gachet’s advice to Vincent was
to cut down on alcohol and cigarettes –
hardly an exclusive medical opinion.
Vincent had always considered madness
to be a disease like any other.

The doctor always encouraged Vincent to paint,
and between May and July 1890 he painted 70 canvases –
an unbelievable amount of work.
When Gachet saw Vincent’s portrait of him,
he requested a copy for himself.
He would remind him of the request
when Vincent came to dinner once a week.
The portrait shows a man in a cap
whose drooping and distant gaze
has the expression of someone with many worldly cares.
Both portraits show the foxglove plant,
which Gachet was said to have used on his patients.
The colour purple of the flowers in both portraits has faded.
Vincent had said that he had wanted to create
a truly modern portrait to capture –
 “the heartbroken expression of our time.”
He had achieved this by a distracted look
of inner sadness, along with outer melancholy.

We don’t know what had happened
to Vincent during July 1890
to finally convince him
that he should commit suicide.
During those last weeks,
there were periods  of quiet calmness
and serene enlightenment
spent in artist Daubigny’s garden.
His widow gave permission to paint there
and it seemed to be a refuge that soothed him,
a place free of the storm that disturbed him.
In a final letter, he told Theo that this was –
“a picture I have been meditating
since I have been here. It is one
of my most deliberate canvases.”
To the viewer, it may not appear extraordinary,
and lacks the drama and bright colours
which we have known him by.

In all three studies the sky is pale, 
and it is not blue.
The trees and grasses and roses
are all various shades of green.
It is my speculation that Vincent
is remembering the summers of his youth;
the muted colours of a northern
temperate climate as in Holland.
He is also remembering artist Daubigny,
another open-air artist whose work he admired.
For Vincent, the paintings represented
an absence of disturbance,
somewhere to have peace and tranquility
away from the morbid turbidity of 
the relentlessly ripening cornfields.

However, as the corn ripened, he found he was
consumed by green.
“The thing is greens of a different quality,
of the same value, so as to form
a whole of green, which by its vibration,
will make you think of the gentle
rustle of the ears swaying in the breeze.
It is not at all easy to colour.”
“I experience a period of frightening
clarity in those moments  when nature
is so beautiful.  I am no longer sure
of myself and the paintings appear
as in a dream.”

By July, the cornfields were ripe
and he was drawn into the countryside to work.
“I have since painted three more big canvases. 
They are vast stretches of corn under 
troubled skies . . . to express sadness
and extreme loneliness . . . they will tell you
what I cannot say in words.”

The frantic and frenetic energy
he was using for so many canvases
must have been exhausting.
It seemed to be an attempt
to remove from his system  a build up
of mental chaos, which was driving
him over the edge of expectation.
He was no longer able to deal
with its penetrating demands.
His drive to expel the demons
was constant and continuous.
His stormy, swirling cornfields,
full of raucous rooks and crows,
was where he chose to do battle.
He had said that he needed a gun
to dispel the tormenting chorus
of those black birds, but actually
he used it to shoot himself in the chest
on July 27, 1890.
Crawling back to his room, badly wounded, 
he died two days later in Theo’s arms.
His brother was devastated
and died six months later.
Dr Gachet tried to save him
from the wound, and said so.
Vincent replied,  “Then I shall
have to do it over again.”
This sounds rather glib and fatalistic,
but was his way of saying that
the gunshot was no accident.
His final letter (not sent) said
in a statement of crisis –
“I am risking my life for my own work
and my reason has half foundered in it.”


“Someday death will take us to another star.”

“My greatest wish is to learn to change
and remake reality. I want my paintings
to be inaccurate and anomalous
in such a way that they become lies,
if you like, but lies that are more truthful
than the literal truth.”

Vincent van Gogh