Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

July 23, 2017

Some argue that the blues in Van Gogh's Starry Night suggest he was colour blind.

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Art and ocular disease

Part two: why Van Gogh's critics are wrong

Art critics in the 1800s had a scientific weapon up their sleeves when it came to attacking the painters whose florid and outrageous colour choices caused them so much disdain. Clearly, they asserted, this perverse excess of incoherently selected hues could be chalked up to just one thing: daltonism. This was the early term for colourblindness, so named after the Englishman John Dalton who wrote the first scientific paper on the subject in 1798 after he realized that his own colour vision was congenitally compromised. Commenting on the work of Edouard Manet one wrote: “On soul and conscience, I believe that the pupils of Mr. Manet are afflicted with daltonism.”

Only an affliction of the eyes could possibly explain the Impressionists’ bizarre palettes chorused the critics. Some complained about the preponderance of blue in paintings by Monet, Pissarro and others. One noted “green has practically disappeared from their palette, whereas blue dominates all their paintings (and) spoils everything.”

TOO BLUE?

The excess of blue was, they decided, sufficient evidence to diagnose the painters with protanopia or deuteranopia, the two types of inherited colour vision deficiency which make green and red indistinguishable.

The painters themselves mischievously played into the act. Camille Pissarro wrote to his son that, “We are affected by painters’ disease who see blue, which is daltonism.” American James Whistler, not an Impressionist himself, glimpsed a spot of blue paint on the sleeve of writer Stephane Mallarme’s jacket and commented, “He’s been to stay with the Impressionists!”

It was the critics’ eyes — or rather, their judgments — which were in need of a diagnosis, and not those of the painters. Chromophobia, or fear of colour, was perhaps at play here. Contemporary artist David Batchelder describes chromophobia as a phenomenon that lurks within much Western cultural and intellectual thought, apparent in the way Western culture seeks to make colour the property of some “foreign body” — the pathological, the vulgar or the infantile. When Western palettes first exploded into vibrant splotches of indescribable brilliance, critics took cover declaring the outburst a product of pathology.

Interestingly, a similar approach has been used even recently in an attempt to “explain” painter Vincent van Gogh’s ecstatic, visionary use of colour. In 2011, Japanese colour designer Kazunori Asada had what he felt was a profound revelation about Van Gogh’s use of colour while viewing Starry Night and other famous works in a ‘Colour Vision Experience Room’ designed to show normal-sighted people what it was like to have red-green colour blindness.

“Under the filtered light,” he wrote, “I found these paintings looked different from the Van Gogh which I had always seen. […] [T]o me, the incongruity of colour and roughness of line had quietly disappeared. And each picture had changed into one of brilliance with very delicate lines and shades. This was truly a wonderful experience.”

His argument that the great master of colour had been colour deficient was strangely compelling, and caught on in some circles. But professor of ophthalmology at Stanford University, Dr Michael Marmor, says that while Van Gogh was most certainly plagued by a host of health afflictions both mental and physical, colour blindness is very unlikely to have been one of them.

“He used vibrant greens in many paintings,” says the specialist, “and green is a dangerous colour for a colour-blind person because it lies right between yellow and blue, and to their perception it actually greys out — it loses colour.” Dr Marmor also rejects the theory that Van Gogh’s affinity for yellow in his paintings came from “yellow vision,” caused by taking digitalis to treat supposed epilepsy. “He could not have taken enough of it to have that effect. It’s too toxic. He loved yellow throughout his career.”

He isn’t the only one who disagrees with Asada. American ophthamologist Dr Bryan William Jones points out that Asada’s software for transforming normal colour vision into colourblind perception is more of a “gentle approximation” of what a true protanope would see, and one which leaves some reds and greens intact. Dr Jones uses his own software to filter Van Gogh’s paintings through a colourblind lens more accurately, revealing that had he been colourblind, Van Gogh would not have been able to select the reds and greens necessary to distinguish tulip leaves from the blossoms, as he clearly does in Flowering Garden with Path. And who but a painter sensitive to the atmospheric differences between green and red could paint masterpieces like The Night Cafe and Woman Rocking a Cradle, one might ask.

Outrageous myths about the eccentric painter abound: that the painter Gauguin was responsible for cutting off a portion of Van Gogh’s ear during a fencing match; that he was murdered; and finally, that he was colour-blind. At least that one can be crossed off the list. Another good reason to believe that Van Gogh’s colour vision worked just fine is that the painter never mentioned any lack of perception of when it came to colour. Artists notice these things.

BLISSFUL ENGRAVER

Take the case of Charles Meryon (1821 -1868) who was France’s most renowned engraver in the 19th century, and who was colour blind. He discovered this early in his career as a painter, when he observed that, “There is no doubt that my sight is out of order and this causes certain colours to be confused by me, even though they are completely different for everyone else.” His close friend Phillippe Burty, who was to publish the first important study of his work, noted that Meryon was, “unable to distinguish ripe strawberries from the leaves… on his palette he used red for yellow, rose pink for green, whilst he distinguished other colours like gold, cobalt and lapis lazuli with extreme precision.”

During a voyage across the Pacific — the same environment from which painter Gauguin drew a paradise of colour 50 years later — Meryon produced a series of landscape drawings in black pencil. Soon after, he discovered engraving and renounced colour for good. The unequalled mastery he was able to achieve as an engraver, celebrated especially in scenes of Paris and its surrounds may in fact be credited to his colour blindness, which allowed him to develop a heightened sensitivity to the subtleties of light and shadow. Upon viewing his etchings, writer Victor Hugo remarked, “The murmur of the universe traverses Meryon’s work and creates visions more from his etchings than his paintings.”

Switching to sculpture or printmaking is apparently common among artists who find themselves with a colour-blind diagnosis, says contemporary artist Peter Milton. He counts himself among them, creating lush, extraordinarily intricate black-and-white prints which invoke a sense of mystery. Milton didn’t find out he was colour-blind until he had a show of his paintings at age 32 and one critic referred to how “warm and sort of pinky the landscapes were,” he says. “I was horrified.”

COLOUR GURU

Milton had the good fortune to study art at Yale under Josef Albers, who literally wrote the book on colour, entitled Interaction of Color. Apparently Albers thought highly of Milton’s work, which continues to strike Milton as bizarre. “I’m the colour-blind person,” he says. “He’s the colour guru.”

Would Milton correct his colour vision deficiencies if he could? If he wanted to see the world the way the other 93 percent of men of European decent see it (7 percent of people born male have are colourblind, while only .4 percent of those born female have the deficiency), a special pair of lenses could give him renewed colour vision. EnChroma glasses are reputed to help four out of five people who experience colour blindness. The glasses were originally designed to offer eye protection for surgeons using lasers. But when inventor Donald McPherson’s colour blind friend put the glasses on, he saw a new range of colours for the first time.

Milton, however, seems attached to his particular form of seeing. “I don’t miss colour,” he says and claims that it’s a disability that makes colour choices easier.

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