The issue of Van Gogh's health and the medication he may have taken has always been an interesting one. It has been suggested that Van Gogh was on a certain drug (actually a root back in those days) that is similar to the common drug Lanoxin. One of the side effects of Lanoxin is blurred vision with yellow halos around objects. An interesting idea. Can anyone confirm this?
THE INFLUENCE OF DRUGS ON VAN GOGH'S YELLOWS
I'd like to expose my amateur opinion about the question posed on the effects of a certain drug on Van Gogh's vision that could implicate, though the question says nothing, an influence on Van Gogh's works.
It is not the first time that certain artistic aspects have been justified by optics defaults. Some people said that the elongated personages of El Greco were the consequence of a default vision when it is easily explained by a Byzantine influence during his first period.
The similar drug to LANOXIN, the medicine cited in the question, was in Vincent's times the DIGITALINE, a product derived from the leaves of the foxglove (Digitalis Lanata). In the same way that Quina was the great discovery in medicine in the XVII century, the great discovery in the XVIII century was the Digitaline. It was first used to treat dropsy, but it only gave good results when dropsy was caused by heart problems.
There's a book written by Bright in 1785 titled An account of the Foxglove. It is supposed that one hundred years later doctors would had yet discovered its use like regulator of heart rhythm. The interval of the correct dose is very short, so it was possible to suffer overdose with some secondary effects, such as blurred vision, yellow halos and confusion.
VAN GOGH, A CARDIAC?
Now, the first question is, was he really suffering a heart disease? In the letter 474 he say something like "as I am not able to apply to stimulants to make my blood circulate...", and later "...the blood is getting better, what is the most important..." There are one or two similar expressions in other letters but, are these enough to get the conclusion that he was a cardiac? Is it sure he took this drug?
Second question, supposing he suffered of digitaline overdose with yellow halos symptoms, is there any painting where the yellows were discordant or out of its right place?
There are other reasons to explain the origin of the beautiful Van Gogh's yellows.
During his first period, when most of his paintings had a social message, he used dark colours, especially brown, to express the poverty and suffering of farmers and weavers. Sometimes the paintings were monochromatic, red, green... using different tones. He became a great tonalist. (See J.H. 492, 507, 604, 734)
During his stay in Paris he was attracted by the use of a wide scale of colours. He is now not only a tonalist but a colourist too.
THE MEDITERRANEAN LANDSCAPE
When he arrives to Arles he is captivated, like many northern people, by the brilliant light, the sun and the landscape of the mediterranean country. In this climate, from May to mid October the landscape is full of yellows because of the lack of rain.
It is a dry farming territory, so on can see the wheat fields that look toast yellow before harvesting and brilliant yellow after it, because of the new straw that later changes to old gold. The dry weeds are pale yellow, almost white. On can also see the yellow sunflowers (a plant resisting dry summers) in contrast with its dark green leaves...and all over, the bright, blinding, burning, yellow sun.
Van Gogh, to my opinion, is an artist that captivates the spectator not only for his art, but mainly because he transmits to his works his own feelings and psychical state of mind, and in certain aspects he is like appealing the spectator. If one analyzes the painting one likes more, he'll surely find something of himself in the painting, something that identifies the spectator and the artist. Van Gogh transmits his emotions to the spectators.
Now, when people speak about Van Gogh's yellows, what are they speaking of? Sure they are thinking of the summer paintings made in Arles (summer 1888) Why? Because the psychical state of mind of the painter in that period was the sum of enthusiasm, his photographic sight, his tonalist experience...and a bit of absinthe. He repeatedly wrote that alcohol was good for artists and stimulated creativeness.
In these circumstances he was able to catch the joy of all the different yellows of the mediterranean zone.(See 1440, 1447, 1580)
The yellows painted in Saint Rémy (summer 1889) are different. Though the landscape and colours are the same than those of Arles, the mental state of the painter is quite different. He is humble-minded because of his mental illness and many other problems including the lack of liberty and, why not, the lack of absinthe, forbidden by the doctors. "...now I'll paint in grey..." he said in one of his letters.
Finally (summer 1890) its yellows in Auvers are again different because he is in a different landscape with different light and tones, and his psychical state was far from his enthusiasm of Arles.
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