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Was Van Gogh’s obsession with yellow an eye condition or an artistic choice?

Was Van Gogh’s obsession with yellow an eye condition or an artistic choice?

Thursday 06 May 2021

Vincent van Gogh, the Dutch postimpressionist painter, is familiar to many of us as a brilliant but tortured artist who painted some of the most famous paintings of all time, including Sunflowers (1887) and The Starry Night (1889).

During the last few years of his life, his art was often characterised by halos and the colour yellow. Critics have attributed this to all manner of possible causes, including chronic sun damage, lead poisoning, glaucoma, cataracts and even excessive absinthe consumption.

When most of us think of Van Gogh’s works, the first colour that springs to mind is often a warm, radiant, golden yellow. Yellow sunflowers, yellow fields of grain, even the yellow moon in The Starry Night. But his paintings did not start out that way. As late as 1885, roughly halfway through the short decade Van Gogh spent painting, he was still painting works like The Potato Eaters (1885), which feature dark and muddy greys, browns and greens.

One popular theory behind the shift in Van Gogh’s colour choices is that he might have suffered from xanthopsia, also known as “yellow vision”, as a result of digitalis intoxication. This theory is based on him having twice painted his doctor holding a foxglove (digitalis) plant, which was commonly used in the latter part of the 19th century to treat epilepsy. The toxic effects of foxgloves may also have, in part at least, dictated the artist's technique in later paintings of depicting light radiating outwards in a halo-like fashion, as in The Night Cafe (1888) and The Starry Night (1889). Others believe that the shift in Van Gogh’s colour palette was simply influenced by his move to Paris in 1886 where it was generally assumed that he was inspired by the bold use of colour by the French Impressionists. And many have also wondered whether Van Gogh simply used more yellow when he moved to the sunnier climes of Arles and Saint Remy because the weather meant he naturally spent more time outdoors and literally saw the world bathed in yellow sun.

There is also of course the possibility that he just really liked the colour yellow. He is, after all, quoted as having once said, “How wonderful yellow is. It stands for the sun.” The fact of the matter is, we’ll never really know for sure whether Van Gogh’s obsession with yellow towards the end of his life and career were due to an eye condition, an artistic choice, or simply because he was a fan. But what we do know is that although he may never have achieved professional success in his lifetime, he is now one of the most famous and revered artists in the world.


  1. The Eye Associates.
  2. NCBI.
  3. Artnome.
  4. Pub Med.


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    08 May 2021

    If van Gogh had an eye condition that made everything appear yellow, rhis would have made the canvas apppear yellow to him. Why then would he add more yellow paint to make it even yellower?

  • James McGrory
    26 Aug 2023

    If Vincent had an optical impairment, does that mean that his works were not art ...... but simply symptoms of psycho-physical disorder? If the latter ...... are they not worthless, other than as psycho-medical case studies?

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