If you’ve studied Van Gogh’s paintings from the second period of his career, ranging about 1886-1890, you will notice the repeated presence of yellows. It was at the beginning of this period that Van Gogh’s color palette changed from more earthy tones to brighter colors as he became familiar with the works of the French Impressionists. As with many things surrounding Van Gogh, there isn’t a clear reason for his use of yellow, was it a vision problem, was it from drinking Absinthe, or was it simply personal preference?
Some believe that Van Gogh’s vision might have been impaired by glaucoma and corneal edema or perhaps lead poisoning. This would possibly cause him to see colored halos around lighted objects, similar to what we see in some of Van Gogh’s paintings such as the stars in his wildly popular Starry Night.
Van Gogh is known to have suffered from seizures, possibly caused by temporal lobe epilepsy. Dr. Gachet may have treated the symptoms with digitalis, extracted from the purple foxglove. (In Van Gogh’s portraits of Dr. Gachet he’s holding a sprig of the foxglove plant.) A side effect of this treatment is yellow-blue vision causing glares and halos. This digitalis side effect might have caused Van Gogh to see the world through a yellow lens.
Absinthe is a highly alcoholic beverage which Van Gogh was well known for partaking in. The chemical compound thujone is present in the spirit and can have harmful side effects. The thujone in the absinthe Van Gogh consumed seemed to work against him and further aggravated his epilepsy symptoms. Thujone poisoning can cause one to see objects in yellow.
Others argue that simply because Van Gogh’s work doesn’t follow the lines of realism doesn’t mean he had blurred vision but instead just a different style than the norm. Van Gogh often experimented with color, its effects and ranges of tone. In some of his paintings, he restricted his palette to be composed almost entirely of yellows, as in Sunflowers.
Van Gogh’s use of yellow is just another mystery surrounding the famous artist.