Vincent van Gogh is thought to be one of the most brilliant, yet tortured artists in history. He suffered from psychotic episodes, anxiety, and severe depression. Furthermore, he cut off part of his own ear and eventually committed suicide. For that reason, art lovers have long wondered if the colors used for his iconic artwork really did his work justice. Now, science has shone a light on that, revealing the true colors of some of van Gogh’s paintings.
The X-ray Discovery
To perform the true color experiment, scientists looked at the three versions of van Gogh’s bedroom in France. The three paintings were created a year apart (one in 1888 and two in 1889), but they don’t look much different to the naked eye.
However, scientists discovered that there’s actually a big difference in these paintings by using X-ray fluorescence spectrometry to find what was hiding under the surface. Under this influence, it’s clear that the first painting, done in 1888 and displayed in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, was full of more cheerful colors with pale violets, yellows, reds, lilacs, and lighter greens.
The second version, done only a year later, shortly after a falling out with fellow artist Paul Gauguin, which resulted in van Gogh cutting off a portion of his own ear, appears much darker. The shade of violet used to paint the walls is so dark it’s almost blue. The painting, which displays van Gogh’s much-changed disposition, is displayed at the Art Institute of Chicago.
There is also a third, smaller painting that was composed at the same time as the latter, which is displayed in Musee d’Orsay in Paris. Again, the colors take on a darker hue when placed under the X-ray technology.
The Significance of the Experiment
Dr. Francesca Casadio, a scientific conservator at the Art Institute of Chicago, took a moment to comment on the significance of the different colors in the three paintings.
She discussed how the colors used in the painting were fairly new to the art world during van Gogh’s time, and artists experimented prolifically during that time period. The interesting thing about these colors is that they often change over time, which is why we’re seeing such a difference in the three paintings today.
“It’s really significant because we know the walls of that room were whitewashed, they weren’t purple at all. So in the original Amsterdam painting they convey a sense of repose, and complement other colors in the room, such as the yellow of the chairs. It was meant to feel homely and more peaceful,” she told the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington.
“This is using scientific tools to bring us closer to the emotional state of the artist. When he wasn’t being violent he used his paintings to show that he had it together. Maybe it’s going too far to say that painting was therapy for him but in a sense it was,” she said.
Van Gogh’s Emotional Battle
Artists often use paintings to show their emotions. Picasso, for example, who was born just a few years before van Gogh’s death, sank into a deep depression in the latter part of 1901. His paintings, which are predominantly collected and displayed by Albert Scaglione of Park West Gallery, began to take on deep blue tones to show his feelings. It’s known as Picasso’s Blue Period.
With van Gogh, it was known that he was suffering, but until now, the difference in his artwork hadn’t been clearly displayed. It was clear that his mental health was declining because van Gogh checked himself into an asylum very shortly after completing his third, tortured painting of his birthplace. During that time, his emotional health declined exponentially, although he continued his work, developing paintings like The Starry Night and Sunflowers. Unfortunately, in 1890, his depression became so overwhelming that he shot himself.