Art in Exile: Vincent van Gogh’s Yellow and Blue

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Art in Exile: a blog series focused on introducing beauty into the social media stream during a season of self-quarantine, social distancing, and a global pandemic.

I had an art teacher in High School who told us that if we wanted to love art, we should pick an artist or two we connect with and pay attention to them for the rest of our lives. Not only would we enjoy a lifetime of ever-deepening connection to a master, but those artists would inevitably introduce us to their friends and mentors. I took that advice to heart, and latched on to Vincent van Gogh.

My art teacher was right. Vincent introduced to the impressionists, and also to the Dutch greats, like Rembrandt. I love so many of them. Still though, to this day I feel like Vincent is my painter more than any other. And as it always happens, when we focus on one artist over time, we learn their tells—the moves they make, the motifs they are most drawn to, the things they are trying to say.

Today we’re going to focus on some of Vincent van Gogh’s signature tells. Most artists have them—melodic phrases, riffs, color spectrums, subject matter, repeated themes that run through their work. One of Vincent’s is his use of yellow and blue. Another is the sunflower. What are yours?

Van Gogh, Six Sunflowers, 1888

Vincent was very aware that the sunflower was one of his signatures. In a letter to his brother Theo, Vincent wrote, “You know that Jeannin has the peony, Quost has the hollyhock, but I have the sunflower, in a way.” Every artist has “go to” moves, themes, and riffs.

Van Gogh, Four Withered Sunflowers, 1887

Much has been written about why Vincent used yellow so much, but one reason was because of a new pigment called Chrome Yellow, which is the vibrant yellow we see in his later paintings. It looked like light. Vincent almost always set it against blue.

Van Gogh, The Sower, 1888

This is one of Vincent’s earlier works painted in 1886. Here he has not yet zeroed in on sunflowers or his signature dominant yellow and blue spectrum. But the sunflowers make an early appearance. This is a painting from an artist finding his way and also his own personal taste. 

Van Gogh, Still Life with Roses and Sunflowers, 1886

Vincent wanted to start an artist colony in his home in Arles, which he called “The Yellow House.” The painter Paul Gauguin came to live there with Vincent for a few months in 1888. Vincent knew Gauguin loved sunflowers, so he painted some to decorate his friend’s room. Here is one.

Van Gogh Sunflower of Gauguin’s Room, 1888

Gauguin painted Vincent painting sunflowers. At first, Vincent hated the painting, but eventually his attitude changed. He said, “My face has lit up a lot since, but it was indeed me, extremely tired and charged with electricity as I was then.” 

Paul Gauguin, Painter of Sunflowers, 1888

Gauguin said of Vincent’s love for yellow, “Oh yes, he loved yellow, this good Vincent, this painter from Holland — those glimmers of sunlight rekindled his soul, that abhorred the fog, that needed the warmth.”

Van Gogh, The Yellow House, 1888

To me, Vincent’s yellow and blue set a tension between day and night. The brilliance of his nightscapes (blue) are marked by the light (yellow) that pierces the darkness. And this was a metaphor for Vincent himself, dark as night but filled with brilliance. What are your tells? 

Van Gogh, Starry Night Over the Rhone, 1888

Russ Ramsey
Russ Ramsey and his wife and four children make their home in Nashville, Tennessee. He is a pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church and the author of Struck: One Christian's Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017), Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative (Rabbit Room Press, 2011) and Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Crossway, 2015). He is a graduate of Taylor University (1991) and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv – 2000, ThM – 2003). Follow Russ on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram.

One Response to “Art in Exile: Vincent van Gogh’s Yellow and Blue

  • I wonder if Van Gogh was influenced by Goethe’s Theory of Colors (1810) in his choice of pairing yellow/orange with blue. At the current exhibition of JMW Turner’s oils and watercolors at Frist Art Museum, Turner mentions explicitly Theory of Colors in reference to ‘Light and Colour – Morning After the Deluge’ (1843) [https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/light-and-colour-goethes-theory-the-morning-after-the-deluge-moses-writing-the-book-of-genesis-202342].

    The complementary blue enhancing the brilliance of the yellows, allowing them to really sing

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