vincent van gogh's complementary color symbolism

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In the overview Vincent intuitively followed the antipodal color code of ancient philosophy, which also had been unveiled by numerous other artists in painting, sculptures or literature. In a letter to his sister Wil, van Gogh compared the fundamental harmony of chromatic pairs that together "shine brilliantly" to a human couple declaring, the colors "complete each other like a man and woman.". Vincent's samples of pairs illustrate his expressive idea of chromatic pairs. The finest samples of red & blue color symbolism may be found in Courting couples in the Voyer d'Argenson Park in Asnières (1887, Paris), Two Lovers (Walking Couple) – (1888, Arles) and Couple Walking among Olive Trees (Saint-Remy, May 1890).


  • Vincent van Gogh's Complementary Color Symbolismjwr47

    8 September 1888 Red & Green in The Night CafHaving analyzed the origin of the divine biblical colors red, blue and purple1, which had beencommanded in Exodus and Chronicles concentrated on Vincent's complementary colors, whichseemed to have been defined as red & green as in the Vincent's Night Caf. Wikipedia's authorsrefer as follows to Vincent's study of complementary symbols:

    Describing his painting, The Night Caf, to his brother Theo dated 8 September 1888,Vincent wrote: Ive tried to express the terrible human passions with the red and thegreen. 5 The room is blood-red and dull yellow, a green billiard table in the center, 4lemon yellow lamps with an orange and green glow. Everywhere its a battle and anantithesis of the most different greens and reds; in the characters of the sleepingruffians, small in the empty, high 6 room, some purple and blue. The blood-red and theyellow-green of the billiard table, for example, contrast with the little bit of delicateLouis XV green of the counter, where theres a pink bouquet. The white clothes of theowner, watching over things from a corner in this furnace, become lemon yellow, paleluminous green. 7 Im making a drawing of it in watercolor tones to send you tomorrow,to give you an idea of it.82

    1 The Hermetic Codex, Illuminated Manuscripts, The Hermetic Codex II - Bipolar Monotheism, Lamentation for Tyreand The Pancreator's Colors2 676 - Vincent van Gogh The Letters

    Fig. 1: The Night Caf (Public Domain) expressing the terrible human passions with the red and the green

  • No other painter used complementary colors so often and dramatically as Vincent vanGogh. He created his own oranges with mixtures of yellow, ochre and red, and placedthem next to slashes of sienna red and bottle green, and below a sky of turbulent blueand violet. He put an orange moon and stars in a cobalt blue sky. He wrote to his brotherTheo of "searching for oppositions of blue with orange, of red with green, of yellowwith violet, searching for broken colors and neutral colors to harmonize the brutality ofextremes, trying to make the colors intense, and not a harmony of greys."[17] 3

    On the traditional color wheel developed in the 18th century (see 1708 illustration byBoutet), used by Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh and other painters, and still usedby many artists today, the primary colors were considered to be red, yellow, and blue,and the primarysecondary complementary pairs are redgreen, orangeblue, andyellowviolet[2] (or yellowpurple in Boutet's color wheel).

    However I had discovered a contradiction between these written red & green complementarycombinations and the practiced symbolism in Vincent's male and female antipodes. In fact Vincentmay have used red and green to express the terrible human passions, but in earlier periods he usedred & blue to symbolize the female (red) and male (blue) antipodes in a loving couple.

    The Couple in The Night CafThe Couple in The Night Caf is dressed in blue for the male person and in dark brown respectivelyyellowish & green for the lady.

    Source: Le caf de nuit (The Night Caf) by Vincent van Gogh.jpeg

    respectively Van Gogh: Night Cafe in Arles, The (for the water color image)

    3 Source (Wikipedia): Complementary colors

    2: Le caf de nuit (The Night Caf) byVincent van Gogh - oilpainting

    3: Le caf de nuit (The Night Caf)(Vincent van Gogh - water color)

  • Portrait of the poet Eugene Boch (3 September 1888)In the letter Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh" (3 September 1888) Vincent claimed heintended to express the love of two lovers by a marriage of two complementary colors, theirmingling and their opposition, the mysterious vibrations of kindred tones (see appendix for thesource letter). This symbolism seems to refer to the painting of the poet with the radiance of abright yellow (light) tone against a somber deep ultramarine background.

    His line head with that keen gaze stands out in my portrait against a starry sky of deepultramarine; for clothes, a short yellow coat, a collar of unbleached linen, and spotted tie. Hegave me two sittings in one day.

    The deep ultramarine sky indeed may symbolize a halo, contrasting to the complementary yellow:

    And in a picture I want to say something comforting as music is comforting. I want to paintmen and women with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize, andwhich we seek to confer by the actual radiance and vibration of our coloring.


    I am always in hope of making a discovery there, to express the love of two lovers by amarriage of two complementary colors, their mingling and their opposition, the mysteriousvibrations of kindred tones. To express the thought of a brow by the radiance of a light toneagainst a somber background.

    In this case there is no lover, except for the ultramarine sky background.

    4: Portrait of the poet Eugene Boch - combining ultramarine and yellow -

  • Courting couples in the Voyer d'Argenson Park, Asnires (spring 1887) The following painting dated in the spring of 1887 (in Paris) depicts a couple of a woman dressed inrose accompanied by a man in blue.

    The foliage of the trees reflect his study of complementary tones; the sky is featheredwith tiny strokes of the palest shades of blue, violet, and green. In a letter to his sisterWil, van Gogh compared the fundamental harmony of chromatic pairs that together"shine brilliantly" to a human couple declaring, the colors "complete each other like aman and woman.4"

    At that stage the complementary colors had been defined as rose for the female and blue for themale antipodes.

    4 Vincent van Gogh Paintings from Paris

    Fig. 5: Courting couples in the Voyer d'Argenson Park in Asnires (detail), Vincent van Gogh (spring 1887 in Paris)

  • Two Lovers (Walking Couple), March 1888 (Arles)The following sketch dated in March 1888 (in Arles) depicts a couple of a woman dressed in scarletred accompanied by a man in blue jacket, yellow hat and undefined trousers.

    The following letter dated March 18th, 1888 refers to this sketch 5

    At the top of this letter Im sending you a little croquis of a study thats preoccupyingme as to how to make something of it sailors coming back with their sweetheartstowards the town, which projects the strange silhouette of its drawbridge against a hugeyellow sun.6

    6. The fragment Walking couple (F 544 / JH 1369) is all that has survived of this study,which is reproduced in its entirety in the letter sketch The Langlois bridge with walkingcouple (F - / JH 1370). In letter 589 Van Gogh said that he had ruined the study6.

    5 587 - Vincent van Gogh The Letters - Vincent van Gogh to mile Bernard on March 18th, 188 6 The bad weather prevented my working on the spot, and I've completely ruined it by trying to finish it at home.

    6: Two Lovers (Walking Couple), March 1888 (Arles)

  • A sunday at Eindhoven7 (December 1883)In the water color painting A sunday at Eindhoven (5 or 6 December 1883) the painter applies red& blue to concentrate and highlight the (walking) protagonist in the scene.

    I found a version of this painting in Van Gogh (1975) by Pierre Cabane with very dark coloredbackground. In fact the red & blue of the walking protagonist at the left side seemed to mark theonly brightly colored area of this image. The web-versions of this painting however may have beenenhanced in their coloring spectrum.

    The protagonist with a bright red bundle and a light blue coat may represent a hobo8.

    7 "Un dimanche Eindhoven", aquarelle de Vincent Van Gogh8 A sunday at Eindhoven

    Fig. 7: "Un dimanche Eindhoven", aquarelle de Vincent Van Gogh

  • Couple Walking among Olive Trees (May 1890)9

    I found a reproduction of this painting in Van Gogh (1967) by Rene Huyghe with an orangecolored dress for the female person, but compared to the generally yellow published web-versionsof this painting I decided to consider the antipodal symbols as yellow and blue.

    9 Couple Walking among Olive Trees in a Mountainous Landscape with Crescent Moon public domain

    Fig. 8: Couple Walking among OliveTrees (detail in yellow & blue, May


    9: Couple in orange & blue - Walkingamong Olive Trees (May 1890) in Van

    Gogh (1967) by Rene Huyghe

  • 536 To Theo. Nuenen, on or about Tuesday, 20 October 188510.

    Postscript sectionThese things that relate to complementary colors, to simultaneous contrast 28 and to the waycomplementaries neutralize each other, this question is the first and foremost. The other is theeffect on each other of two similar colors, for example a carmine on a vermilion, a pink lilac on ablue lilac.The third question is a light blue against the same dark blue, a pink against a brown red, a lemonyellow against fawn yellow, &c. But the first question is the most important.

    And if you find some book or other on color questions that is good, do be sure to send it to me, for Itoo know far from everything about it, and go on searching every day.

    28. The physicist Michel Eugne Chevreul called the phenomenon that complementary colorsreinforce each other when they are placed next to each other the law of the simultaneouscontrast of colors (la loi du contraste simultan des couleurs). He treated the subject at length inhis book De la loi du contraste simultan des couleurs (1839). Van Gogh was familiar with theconcept from Charles Blancs essay on Delacroix in Les artistes de mon temps he quoted therelevant passage on color theory in letter 494 and from Blancs Grammaire des arts du dessin(see n. 7 above).

    Flix Bracquemond a