Could Vincent van Gogh’s acidic sense of color and preference for bright, clashing hues, long the province of the Fauves, be a result of colorblindness and not just an aesthetic judgment? An essay by Kazunori Asada, a Japanese medical scientist and poet, has recently come to the attention of science blogs drawn to its argument that the famous painter wasn’t so much an artistic revolutionary as he was visually impaired. Asada’s article was sparked by an experience in Hokkaido, Japan’s “Color Vision Experience Room,” an immersive simulator that makes it possible to perceive color the way people with different types of colorblindness might experience it. When Asada saw replicas of the artist’s canvases, he had a revelation.
Van Gogh’s paintings, Asada writes, became more beautiful and more natural in the filtered light. “The incongruity of color and roughness of line had quietly disappeared,” the scientist writes. “Each picture had changed into one of brilliance with very delicate lines and shades.” Asada went on to experiment with a piece of software that further simulates different variations of colorblindness, settling on a midrange spectrum deficiency that he felt best modified van Gogh’s work. The deficiency meant that van Gogh’s eyes had a moderate lack of receptors for the color red.