Was Van Gogh Colorblind?

A friend of mine (and amazing landscape/nature photographer) Jim Goldstein sent me a Tweet and pointed out simmering new conjecture in the art community that Vincent Van Gogh might have been color blind, specifically a protanope.  I seem to remember some discussion of this years ago, particularly given that one can rather nicely simulate both protanopia and deuteranopia in Adobe Photoshop with built in filters (View>Proof Setup>Protanopia/Deuteranopia).  However, the current speculation comes about from Kazunori Asada who wrote up a Tumbler blog entry here describing how he came about his idea and a subsequent app he wrote to simulate color vision and color blindness.  The image above shows Kazunori Asada’s approximation of Van Gogh’s Starry Night and Flowering Garden with Path with the original on the left and the Asada transform approximation on the right.

When Van Gogh’s works are viewed with Asada’s colorspace transformation, the works gain additional depth and clarity.  Contrast is increased and many of the works appear less surreal and more “normalized” or “realistic” in their use of color.  Its an interesting speculation, but it should be noted that Mr. Asada’s software does not *precisely* match the color spectrum of those that might have protanopia.  From my simulations in Photoshop, Mr. Asada’s color mappings are not accurate and they seem to be more “gentle” approximations of what a true protanope would see.


My approximation of what a true protanope would actually see Starry Night and Flowering Garden with Path is immediately above.  Again, the original is on the left and the transformed approximation is on the right.  It seemed to me that there is too much red in Asada’s transform, and what you see on the right in my approximation should be a more accurate representation of what a protanope sees.


So, was Van Gogh colorblind?  hard to say for sure, but if he was a protanope, I don’t see how he could have selected the red and green flowers in Flowering Garden with Path.  In the inset image above from the flowers (tulips?) in Flowering Garden with Path, the original zoomed in section is on the left and my approximation of how a protanope would see it is on the right.  If Van Gogh was a protanope, he would have a really difficult time seeing and determining which colors were which and the painting in this region might be very different.  Therefore, my estimation would be that Van Gogh was not in fact colorblind.

However, given that my expertise is not on color processing, I’ll leave that exploration up to the true experts.  Though I’d love to see Robert Marc and Michael Marmor weigh in on this.  Robert has a talk he gives on color that is truly stunning.  The talk brings you from the physics and psychophysics of vision through the neurobiology of color perception and is on a level that even the layman can understand.  It would be ideal for a TED talk actually…

As an aside, I worked with a software developer Bradley Grimm a couple of years ago to create an app to do real time color blindness mapping.  Brad ended up coding it for the Android rather than the iOS I had hoped for, but it was a fun concept to play with.  That said, I have some interesting speculations for a more sophisticated app, so if anyone in the iOS developer community is interested, let me know and we can talk about ideas.

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