Xanthopsia and van Gogh's yellow palette

Eye (Lond). 1991;5 ( Pt 5):503-10. doi: 10.1038/eye.1991.93.


A survey of van Gogh's work from 1886 to 1890 indicated that paintings with a yellow dominance were numerous, episodic, and multi-regional. His underlying illness, by his own admission, affected his life and work; furthermore, episodes of malnutrition, substance abuse, environmental exposure, and drug experimentation (all evident from correspondence) exacerbated his condition. Accordingly, we reviewed plausible agents that might have modified the artist's colour perception. Xanthopsia due to overdosage of digitalis or santonin is well documented elsewhere, but evidence of useage of either drug by van Gogh cannot be substantiated. It is unlikely that ageing of the human lens was an influence because of the artist's youth. Sunstroke is too restrictive to fit the multiplicity of regions and motifs. Hallucinations induced by absinthe, the popular liqueur of the period, may explain particular canvases but not the majority of 'high yellow' paintings. Van Gogh's proclivity for exaggerated colours and his embrance of yellow in particular are clear from his letters and, in contradistinction to chemical or physical insults modifying perception, artistic preference is the best working hypothesis to explain the yellow dominance in his palette.

Publication types

  • Biography
  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aging / physiology
  • Alcoholic Beverages / adverse effects
  • Color Vision Defects / etiology
  • Color Vision Defects / history*
  • Digitalis
  • Famous Persons*
  • History, 19th Century
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Medicine in the Arts*
  • Netherlands
  • Paintings / history*
  • Plants, Medicinal
  • Plants, Toxic
  • Santonin / adverse effects
  • Sunstroke / complications


  • Santonin

Personal name as subject

  • V van Gogh