Van Gogh and colour theory

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The colours of The bedroom


Van Gogh described the colours that he had carefully selected for The bedroom in a letter to Theo:

‘The walls are of a pale violet. The floor — is of red tiles.

The bedstead and the chairs are fresh butter yellow.

The sheet and the pillows very bright lemon green.

The bedspread scarlet red.

The window green.

The dressing table orange, the basin blue.

The doors lilac.

. . . The frame — as there’s no white in the painting — will be white.’

Although there were in fact red floor tiles in the room, Van Gogh certainly did not base this choice solely on reality. Together, the colours violet, blue, green, yellow, orange and red made up the chromatic diagram or ‘colour wheel’ devised by the chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul (1786-1889).

Chromatic diagram or 'colour wheel' of Chevreul

Chromatic diagram or 'colour wheel' of Chevreul


Optical effects

Van Gogh read about Chevreul’s colour theory in the handbook Grammaire des arts du dessin, architecture, sculpture, peinture (1870) by Charles Blanc. Blanc described Chevreul’s theory of the optical effects achieved by placing specific colours next to each other as ‘the law of complementary colours’. Chevreul emphasised that the perception of colour is influenced by the adjacent colours and tones. In particular, opposing colours in the colour wheel (blue-orange, purple-yellow and red-green), which are therefore the farthest apart (complementary colours, as they are known) reinforce each other if they are placed next to each other. 


Using complementary colours

Van Gogh was greatly influenced by this colour theory as a young artist, while he was still in the Netherlands, but it was not until his time in France, when he came under the influence of the Parisian avant-garde, that he started to place pure complementary colours next to each other.

What is more, like the Impressionists (and Neo-Impressionists) he opted for a white frame to complete the work. According to Chevreul’s theory, that white frame, or the use of white in the picture itself, is an essential element of the work. He wrote: ‘If white is placed next to a colour, the latter emerges strongly, as if the white light, which weakens the intensity of colour, had been removed.’ In addition, white may be seen as a pause, a place in which to ‘recharge’ the eye for the intense experience of all those complementary colours.


Consequences of the discolorations

Now that we know how important the use of colour was to Van Gogh in painting The bedroom, we also have a better realisation of the dramatic consequences of the discolorations for the work’s expressiveness. Although it is still a masterpiece in all its beauty and vigour, the artist’s original intentions have largely been lost.

2 Responses to “Van Gogh and colour theory”

  1. Tirana says:

    it takes much more than a colors theory to make Van Gogh’s paintings Van Gogh’s paintings.None has ever done like Van Gogh has.

  2. James Larry Deason says:

    Visual music. Vincent’s colors have a melody and harmony all their own. He almost didn’t need physical properties to express intense emotions. It wasn’t just the items in the frame but their relativity to one another in combination with the colors they exuded. The items were the lyrics, the colors were the music. You would see the vase holding the sunflowers on the table and understand what you were looking at but looking at the colors you would feel the music and the harmonies Vincent masterfully sang and played to us in his unique and glorious style.

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