Was Vincent van Gogh colourblind?

In a recently released essay, the Japanese scientist Kazunori Asada argues yes
Self-portrait, crop, 1889
Self-portrait, crop, 1889

Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh is famed for his gaudy self-portraits, boldly-coloured still lifes and brashly-hued paintings of churches, cafés, cypresses and wheat fields. (We know him for cutting off part of his ear, too, but that's a different story!) Active in the mid–late 19th century, the artist was a pioneer among the post-Impressionists, a group of painters who combined vivid colour with distinctive brushstrokes and who emphasised forms for expressive effect. 

What made van Gogh produce work like this – using such bright and bold colours in a way few people had done before – is anyone's guess. Most would argue it's down to talent, a special kind of genius belonging to a painter who progressed art in a fundamentally game-changing way. But Japanese scientist Kazunori Asada thinks otherwise.

Would van Gogh's Sunflowers, 1888, have looked any different if the painter hadn't suffered from colourblindness?
Would van Gogh's Sunflowers, 1888, have looked any different if the painter hadn't suffered from colourblindness?

In a recent essay, Asada argues that van Gogh's inspired use of colour was in fact down to the artist's visual impairment. Van Gogh, the scientist writes, suffered from colourblindness. Had he seen the way most people do, his paintings would have been very, very different, perhaps not quite as special.

It's a compelling argument, but what does it really mean? Would van Gogh's works have been as equally successful had the painter not suffered from a visual impairment? Were his artistic choices – the different varieties of coloured paint he used and the methods with which he used them – down to a medical condition or his undoubtable talent? We'd argue the latter – van Gogh's paintings were uniquely gestural, the colours he used chosen purposefully and with good reason – but what do you think? 


You May Also Like


Phaidon is the premier global publisher of the creative arts with over 1,500 titles in print. We work with the world's most influential artists, chefs, writers and thinkers to produce innovative books on art, photography, design, architecture, fashion, food and travel, and illustrated books for children. Phaidon is headquartered in London and New York City.
Read more