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November 20, 2019  |  by Bill Dobbins
By Bill Dobbins
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Starry Night is one of the most famous paintings by Vincent Van Gogh. Notice the intense color. Particularly the use of brilliant yellow. | Source:

We often hear artists talking about the fact that they don’t depict reality in their work.  Rather, what they are trying to share is how they “see” reality, or what they “feel” about it. So you have Picasso and Braque attempting to represent views from different perspectives combined in one image – cubism.  You have the late 19th century impressionists, not painting scenes but the effect of light as it falls on and is reflected by those scenes.  Throughout the 20th century artists more and more became interested in abstractionism – focusing on elements like shape, color, and pattern rather than a more conventional view of reality.

The Potato Eaters is an early painting by Van Gogh before he moved to the south of France. Notice the muted colors, the somber tones. Within a few years, his color pallet and artistic vision would totally change. | Source:

Photography is a more technical and mechanical medium than painting, which makes it more difficult for a photographer to create highly subjective images.  But that is what really good photographers do.  For example, the landscapes of Ansel Adams are considered highly realistic.  But they are very abstract.  For one thing, they are in black and white.  He used his “zone system” to carefully control the range of tones and contrast in his photos.  And he shot with apertures like f.64 to create a depth of field, with everything from the rocks at his feet to distant mountains being in apparent focus, which is not at all the way the human eye sees things.

Another Van Gogh painting before he discovered the style using the brilliant color that has made him so famous. | Source:

With the advent of digital photography, plus software like Photoshop, is it easier than ever for photographers to create highly personal and subjective images?  Actually, this is almost too much the case, since it becomes easier to produce photos that look more like illustrations or paintings than traditional photography.

But all of the above has to do with an artist creating works that represent his or her personal sensibility.  But it assumes that what artists are actually seeing is more of less the same as it is for the rest of us.  Of course, there are always going to differences in human perception.  Some people have perfect pitch.  Others seem to be more sensitive to color differences.  Visual perception, in particular, requires an enormous amount of computation by a highly complex set of cells.  This is explored in the book The Astonishing Hypothesis by Francis Crick, co-discoverer of DNA.

Van Gogh’s bedroom in Arles. | Source:
A Van Gogh painting using brilliant blues and yellows. He often shows a swirling reality. What brain or mental state might have contributed to that? | Source:

So with such a complex system, there is going to be a wide range of variables in terms of what an individual perceives visually.  This range would generally be classified as “normal.”  But there are also conditions that would be considered definitely abnormal.  For example, there are individuals who suffer from some sort of color blindness.  Their ability to distinguish colors is outside the range of what would be called normal.

There are also diseases of the eye such as macular degeneration, a disease that affects the macula (central portion of the retina in the eye). Signs and symptoms of the disease are blurred or partial loss of vision (usually central vision), straight lines appear wavy, loss of vision in dim light and objects appear smaller when viewed with one eye.

Van Gogh did a large number of still lives featuring sunflowers. Again, featuring a lot of yellow. | Source:
A landscape with olive trees and yellow sky by Vincent Van Gogh. | Source:

Changes in vision can account for the kinds of paintings created by various artists in history.  For example. Claude Monet is noted for the paintings of his lily pond that appear over time to become softer, less distinct and more abstract over time.  But the fact is that Monet in later years suffered from cataracts, which interfered with his visual percept, and may have been symptoms of myotonic dystrophy.

Claude Monet suffered vision problems in his later years, which probably accounted for the soft, lack of detail nature of his painting. | Source:

In other words, in his later paintings, Monet was probably not painting abstractions – he was showing up what he actually saw when he looked at his garden and ponds.

Van Gogh’s later work was also characterized by thick brush strokes and dense layers of paint. | Source:

But in some cases, the distortions we see in the works of some artists might not be due to some changes or problems with their vision – but a manifestation of actual brain disorders.  Various diseases and conditions can seriously change how we perceive the world, from altering the color and intensity of what we see to producing hallucinations.  We have certainly seen this happen with those using psychedelic drugs, but conditions in the brain itself can create similar effects.

So how many artists thought history, known for their exaggerated or simply unusual depictions of reality, might have been suffering from some kind of changes or diseases related to brain function?

Van Gogh also favored brilliant blues as well as yellow. | Source:

An example might be Vincent van Gogh.

Vincent Van Gogh is one of the most famous painters of all time, was a commercial failure during his lifetime but now his work is worth millions.  He was only a serious artist for about 10 years.  If you look at his early painting it tends to be dark and somber.  When he moved to Arles in the south of France, with its much stronger sunshine than the north of his youth, his canvases became bright, with super-saturated color.  The question is whether or not he had a change of artistic inspiration or if something happened to him that altered the way he perceived the world – particularly color.

Van Gogh suffered from periods of mental illness that resulted in his being institutionalized.  His illness lead to breakdowns that included the famous incident in which he cut off his ear to present to a woman.  He eventually died of what most believe as a self-inflicted gunshot wound.  He considered himself a failure as an artist at the time of his death. At least, a commercial failure. Actually, as famous as he is now, he might have remained unknown or at least obscure except for the efforts of his brother’s widow who very successfully promoted his work after his death.

A Van Gogh self-portrait. In a fit of madness, he once really did cut off his ear. | Source:

But what about his very unusual “artistic vision” and his later adoption of the use of strong colors, particularly yellow?  How might his mental illness and the treatments he underwent have contributed to this?

He has been diagnosed as being bi-polar and seems also to have had severe epileptic episodes.  Of course, we don’t know exactly what he was suffering from but have to rely on descriptions of his symptoms and diagnoses of those treating him at the time.  But it seems entirely possible that the stresses he was under or the damage from seizures could have altered his brain and affected the extremely complicated process that creates our experience of visual perception.

A Van Gogh portrait of his mother. | Source:

For example, it seems he may have been treated with digoxin, which according to The Guardian can have side effects where vision is concerned.

Particularly high concentrations of digoxin’s target enzyme are found in the cone cells in retina of the eye. These are the cells that give us our colour perception. It is very rare, but some people taking digoxin and related drugs can experience haziness to their vision, or a yellow tinge to everything they see, known as xanthopsia. Occasionally, points of light may appear to have coloured halos around them. Rarer still are effects on pupil size, such as dilation, constriction or even unequal-sized pupils.

The effects of digitalis intoxication have been suggested as the cause of Van Gogh’s “yellow period” and the spectacular sky he painted in The Starry Night. More circumstantial evidence comes from the two portraits Van Gogh produced of his doctor, Paul Gachet, showing him holding a foxglove flower. One of Van Gogh’s self portraits also shows uneven pupils.

last painting
The last painting by Vincent Van Gogh. | Source:

Was the change in Van Gogh’s work due to mental illness?  The side-effects of drug treatment?  Or just a shift in his artistic vision?  There is no way to know, but the changes over time were so very dramatic during a 10 year period that it is tempting to look for physical causes.  And if this could be true of Van Gogh, how many artists throughout history might have been affected in similar ways?  We here the truism that genius is close to insanity.

Perhaps this is one way in which this is actually true?

Vincent Van Gogh lies buried beside his beloved brother Theo, who survived him only by a year. | Source:


Bill Dobbins Sarah Lyons dressing room-SMALL-1

 Bill Dobbins is a professional photographer, videographer and writer based in Los Angeles.  His work has been exhibited as fine art in two museums, a number of galleries, and he has published eight books, including two fine art photo books:

The Women: Photographs of The Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan) Modern Amazons (Taschen)





Van Gogh may have had mental problems, but his self-portraits show he knew what he looked like. | Source:
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Paintings by Vincent Van Gogh are extremely popular in museums. | Source:
Van Gogh could never ever have imagined this painting of his would sell for $152 million. The value of art is whatever somebody is willing to pay for it. | Source:
November 20, 2019

About the Author

Bill Dobbins

Bill Dobbins

Bill Dobbins THE BODY PHOTOGAPHER became well known for his male and female physique photos - images of the aesthetic, athletic body. Using the same distinctive personal style, characterized by strong graphics and a classic look in both color and BW, Bill Dobbins has also developed a body of work featuring fashion, beauty and glamor photos In a world in which so many images create a level of "noise" that makes it hard for advertisers to be noticed, Bill's work cuts right through the confusion and grabs the eye. Bill has created two art photos books: The Women: Photographs of the Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan) and Modern Amazons (Taschen) and his fine art work has appeared in two museums and several galleries. WEBSITES BILL DOBBINS PHOTOGRAPHY BILL DOBBINS ART THE FEMALE PHYSIQUE WEBZINE/GALLERY EMAIL:

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