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Vincent van Gogh's Complementary Color Symbolism

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8 September 1888 Red & Green in The Night Caf


Having analyzed the origin of the divine biblical colors red, blue and purple 1, which had been
commanded in Exodus and Chronicles concentrated on Vincent's complementary colors, which
seemed to have been defined as red & green as in the Vincent's Night Caf. Wikipedia's authors
refer 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 the
green. 5 The room is blood-red and dull yellow, a green billiard table in the center, 4
lemon yellow lamps with an orange and green glow. Everywhere its a battle and an
antithesis of the most different greens and reds; in the characters of the sleeping
ruffians, small in the empty, high 6 room, some purple and blue. The blood-red and the
yellow-green of the billiard table, for example, contrast with the little bit of delicate
Louis XV green of the counter, where theres a pink bouquet. The white clothes of the
owner, watching over things from a corner in this furnace, become lemon yellow, pale
luminous green. 7 Im making a drawing of it in watercolor tones to send you tomorrow,
to give you an idea of it.82

Fig. 1: The Night Caf (Public Domain)


expressing the terrible human passions with the red and the green

1 The Hermetic Codex, Illuminated Manuscripts, The Hermetic Codex II - Bipolar Monotheism, Lamentation for Tyre
and The Pancreator's Colors
2 676 - Vincent van Gogh The Letters

No other painter used complementary colors so often and dramatically as Vincent van
Gogh. He created his own oranges with mixtures of yellow, ochre and red, and placed
them next to slashes of sienna red and bottle green, and below a sky of turbulent blue
and violet. He put an orange moon and stars in a cobalt blue sky. He wrote to his brother
Theo of "searching for oppositions of blue with orange, of red with green, of yellow
with violet, searching for broken colors and neutral colors to harmonize the brutality of
extremes, 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 by
Boutet), used by Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh and other painters, and still used
by many artists today, the primary colors were considered to be red, yellow, and blue,
and the primarysecondary complementary pairs are redgreen, orangeblue, and
yellowviolet[2] (or yellowpurple in Boutet's color wheel).
However I had discovered a contradiction between these written red & green complementary
combinations and the practiced symbolism in Vincent's male and female antipodes. In fact Vincent
may have used red and green to express the terrible human passions, but in earlier periods he used
red & blue to symbolize the female (red) and male (blue) antipodes in a loving couple.

The Couple in The Night Caf


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

2: Le caf de nuit (The Night Caf) by


Vincent van Gogh - oilpainting

3: Le caf de nuit (The Night Caf)


(Vincent van Gogh - water color)

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

Portrait of the poet Eugene Boch (3 September 1888)


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

4: Portrait of the poet Eugene Boch


- combining ultramarine and yellow His line head with that keen gaze stands out in my portrait against a starry sky of deep
ultramarine; for clothes, a short yellow coat, a collar of unbleached linen, and spotted tie. He
gave 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 paint
men and women with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize, and
which 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 a
marriage of two complementary colors, their mingling and their opposition, the mysterious
vibrations of kindred tones. To express the thought of a brow by the radiance of a light tone
against a somber background.
In this case there is no lover, except for the ultramarine sky background.

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 in
rose accompanied by a man in blue.
The foliage of the trees reflect his study of complementary tones; the sky is feathered
with tiny strokes of the palest shades of blue, violet, and green. 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.4"
At that stage the complementary colors had been defined as rose for the female and blue for the
male antipodes.

Fig. 5: Courting couples in the Voyer d'Argenson Park in Asnires (detail),


Vincent van Gogh (spring 1887 in Paris)

4 Vincent van Gogh Paintings from 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 scarlet
red accompanied by a man in blue jacket, yellow hat and undefined trousers.

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


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 preoccupying
me as to how to make something of it sailors coming back with their sweethearts
towards the town, which projects the strange silhouette of its drawbridge against a huge
yellow 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 walking
couple (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.

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 colored
background. In fact the red & blue of the walking protagonist at the left side seemed to mark the
only brightly colored area of this image. The web-versions of this painting however may have been
enhanced in their coloring spectrum.
The protagonist with a bright red bundle and a light blue coat may represent a hobo8.

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

7 "Un dimanche Eindhoven", aquarelle de Vincent Van Gogh


8 A sunday at Eindhoven

Couple Walking among Olive Trees (May 1890)9


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

Fig. 8: Couple Walking among Olive


Trees (detail in yellow & blue, May
1890)

9: Couple in orange & blue - Walking


among Olive Trees (May 1890) in Van
Gogh (1967) by Rene Huyghe

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

536 To Theo. Nuenen, on or about Tuesday, 20 October 1885 10.


Postscript section
These things that relate to complementary colors, to simultaneous contrast 28 and to the way
complementaries neutralize each other, this question is the first and foremost. The other is the
effect on each other of two similar colors, for example a carmine on a vermilion, a pink lilac on a
blue lilac.
The third question is a light blue against the same dark blue, a pink against a brown red, a lemon
yellow 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 I
too know far from everything about it, and go on searching every day.
28. The physicist Michel Eugne Chevreul called the phenomenon that complementary colors
reinforce each other when they are placed next to each other the law of the simultaneous
contrast of colors (la loi du contraste simultan des couleurs). He treated the subject at length in
his book De la loi du contraste simultan des couleurs (1839). Van Gogh was familiar with the
concept from Charles Blancs essay on Delacroix in Les artistes de mon temps he quoted the
relevant passage on color theory in letter 494 and from Blancs Grammaire des arts du dessin
(see n. 7 above).
Flix Bracquemond also calls it simultaneous contrast in Du dessin et de la couleur (see
Bracquemond 1885, pp. 241-245). In September 1885 Van Gogh said he had read this book
more than once; he reread it in February 1886. See letters 532 and 564.

10 536 - To Theo van Gogh. Nuenen, on or about Tuesday, 20 October 1885.

Chronological flow of Vincent's color and color symbolism studies


I decided to put these details in a table-form to study Vincent's development of symbolism.
Initially Vincent van Gogh may have used red & blue to highlight the protagonist in "Un dimanche
Eindhoven" (aquarelle) (1883).
In the spring of 1887 up to march 1888 he seemed to have followed the biblical complementary
codes red & blue as documented in Exodus 25:411 and Chronicles 2:712.
In September 1888 Vincent documented his aim to express the love of two lovers by a marriage of
two complementary colors respectively light / somber. In the Portrait of the poet Eugene Boch the
complementary antipodal symbols are a yellow clothing against an ultramarine background.
The very same month September 1888 Vincent claimed to have used red & green in the interior of
The Night Caf to symbolize the terrible human passions.
In 1890 Vincent used the antipodal symbols yellow and blue to symbolize woman, erespectively
man in a Couple Walking among Olive Trees.
## Painting / letter / sketch

Dated

Female
color code

Male color
code

"Un dimanche Eindhoven", aquarelle de (December 1883)


Vincent Van Gogh

Highlighting a protagonist
by applying red & blue

(494) - Letter to Theo. Nuenen, on or


about Saturday, 18 April 1885

(18 April 1885)

Studying complementary
colors I

536 - To Theo van Gogh. Nuenen, on or


about Tuesday, 20 October 1885.

(20 October 1885)

Studying complementary
colors II

Courting couples in the Voyer d'Argenson spring 1887


Park in Asnires (Paris)

Rose

Blue

Two Lovers (Walking Couple) - (Arles)

March 1888

Red

Blue

Portrait of the poet Eugene Boch


Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh"

(3 September 1888) To express the love of two


lovers by a marriage of two
complementary colors
respectively light / somber.

The Night Caf


(676 - Vincent van Gogh The Letters)

(8 September 1888) I sought to express with red


and green the terrible
human passions.

Couple Walking among Olive Trees


(Saint-Remy, May 1890)

May 1890

Yellow13

Blue

Table 1: Chronological flow of Vincent van Gogh's study of colors & symbolism

11 Exodus 25:4: blue, purple, scarlet, fine linen, goats' hair, Purple (54 Occurrences)
12 Send me now therefore a man cunning to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass, and in iron, and in purple, and
crimson, and blue 2 Chronicles 2:7
13 Orange in Van Gogh (1967) by Rene Huyghe

Sources for Couples' symbolism


Many of Van Goghs ideas about love and women prove to have been inspired by the
literature he read: above all by the books Lamour (1858) and La femme (1860). He went so
far as to describe these didactic treatises on the ideal relationship between man and woman
they should become two-in-one and together bring about something real as his gospel.
Michelet argues that a woman can only really be happy within marriage and under the
guidance of the right man. He sets out the tasks and duties of each party and explains how
the security and support provided by the husband, combined with the devotion and purity of
the wife, can lead to a divine unity. Michelet advocated a vigorous and active love. Men
who were not prepared to protect and rescue a woman should be ashamed of themselves.
Van Gogh had a copy of LAmour. Paris (Hachette) 1861 with his name Vincent inscribed
at the front. See V.W. van Gogh, Les sources dinspiration de Vincent van Gogh. Exhib. cat.
Paris (Institut Nerlandais). Paris 1972, p. 22 (cat. no. 56).14

From a Letter dated 21 March 1883.


Two good people man and woman united wanting and intending the same, steeped in the
same earnestness, what couldnt they achieve! Ive thought about that often. For by uniting, the
force for good is not only doubled but doubled many times as if raised to a higher power, to put
it in mathematical terms.2 15

From a Letter dated 11 July 1883.


My aim is to do a drawing that not exactly everyone will understand, the figure expressed in its
essence in simplified form, with deliberate disregard of those details that arent part of the true
character and are merely accidental. Thus it shouldnt, for example, be the portrait of Pa but rather
the type of a poor village pastor going to visit a sick person. The same with the couple arm in arm
by the beech hedge the type of a man and woman who have grown old together and in whom
love and loyalty have remained, rather than portraits of Pa and Ma, although I hope theyll pose for
it. But they must know that its serious, which they might not see for themselves if the likeness isnt
exact. 16

The androgynous symbolism in Gauguin's sculptures 17


In his paintings Gauguin used the Idol Das Idol (in Rave te Hiti Aamu) for which M.
Bodelsen18 discovered the origin of the name Seraphita had been traced in a novel of Balzac. The
symbolism of this idol represents an androgynous creature in which male and female elements are
joined in harmony. Oviri is the master of death, but also generating Seraphitus (male) and Seraphita
(female). In a letter to his friend Gauguin had ordered to decorate his grave with an Ovirisculpture19.

14 From a note to To Willem and Caroline van Stockum-Haanebeek. London, between about Thursday, 16 October and
Friday, 31 October 1873.
15 To Theo van Gogh. The Hague, on or about Wednesday, 21 March 1883.
16 To Theo van Gogh, The Hague, on or about Wednesday, 11 July 1883.
17 Source: Paul Gauguin, Geheimnisvolle Verwandtschaften von Assja Kantor-Gukowskaja, Anna Barskaja, Marina
Bessonowa
18 M. Bodelsen: Gauguin's Ceramics (1964, S. 149).
19 The Pursuit of Spiritual Wisdom: The Thought and Art of Vincent Van Gogh and Gauguin

The symbol of the universe


I already had searched for some explanation for the biblical color symbols and found the
most probable definition symbol of the universe at Josephus.
From his biblical studies Vincent van Gogh may have known the 25 quotations of red, blue and
purple, but he probably did not have the opportunity to study Josephus or any of the historical
alternative sources except the bible.
In Critique of Modern Art20 Frederick Solomon also quotes Josephus (37 c. 100AD), who
explained the ancient biblical color symbols of the temple at Jerusalem as a symbol of the universe
in his work: The Wars Of The Jews 21, Book V - Chapter 5. Section 4 in: A Description Of The
Temple:
But then this house, as it was divided into two parts, the inner part was lower than the appearance of
the outer, and had golden doors of fifty-five cubits altitude, and sixteen in breadth; but before these
doors there was a veil of equal largeness with the doors. It was a Babylonian curtain, embroidered
with blue, and fine linen, and scarlet, and purple, and of a contexture that was truly wonderful.
Nor was this mixture of colors without its mystical interpretation, but was a kind of image of the
universe; for by the scarlet there seemed to be enigmatically signified fire, by the fine white (?)
flax the earth, by the blue the air, and by the purple the sea; two of them having their colors the
foundation of this resemblance; but the fine flax and the purple have their own origin for that
foundation, the earth producing the one, and the sea the other. This curtain had also embroidered
upon it all that was mystical in the heavens, excepting that of the [twelve] signs, representing living
creatures.
Another reference is given in the description of Moses' Tabernacle in the Wilderness, for which the
Bible prescribes the use of four elementary colors: blue, scarlet, purple and white. However
Josephus does not explain these colors yet, although these are the same colors which have been
documented for the temple:
HEREUPON the Israelites rejoiced at what they had seen and heard of their conductor, and
were not wanting in diligence according to their ability; for they brought silver, and gold,
and brass, and of the best sorts of wood, and such as would not at all decay by putrefaction;
camels' hair also, and sheep-skins, some of them dyed of a blue color, and some of a scarlet;
some brought the flower for the purple color, and others for white, with wool dyed by the
flowers aforementioned; and fine linen and precious stones, which those that use costly
ornaments set in ouches of gold; they brought also a great quantity of spices; for of these
materials did Moses build the tabernacle, which did not at all differ from a movable and
ambulatory temple.
These four basic color symbols red, blue, purple and white have been found in many temple
decorations22, tomb decorations, medieval bible illustration 23, sacred paintings, religious garments,
as well as in coat of arms and flags. In the biblical text for Lamentation for Tyre the trading, the
traders and the customers for these elementary symbolic dyes has been described in details.
The four colors represented the four elements air, fire, sea and earth. Although their symbolism
may have been extended and altered since Josephus, the color symbolism generally formed the
fundamental base for sacred paintings.

20
21
22
23

Critique of Modern Art by Frederick Solomon (1970)


The History Of The Destruction Of Jerusalem
Red and Blue in Architecture and Artwork
Illuminated Manuscripts

Except for translation errors24 yellow and green had never been sacred biblical colors. Yellow had
been defined as a medieval symbol for treason25.
Of course yellow and green had to be seen as non-divine symbols. Especially yellow is well-known
to symbolize bad reputations.

24 Luther's error (yellow instead of blue) in his Bible translations for Exodus 25:4
25 Yellow for Judas

Equivalent Color Coding in my own Paintings


In my own paintings a few examples have been following the same idea of antipodal elements
Vincent formulated in his letters. However I mostly restricted the antipodes to blue (for male
elements) and red (for female elements), found in the Picasa album Years Full of Colors 26:

10: Androgynous Couple


(separated, after Picasso)

11: The Love Letter


(2001)

12: Metamorphosis Cycle (detail, 2003).

26 Androgynous Couple (disrupted, after Picasso), The Love Letter (2001), The Love Letter & Child (2001) and
Metamorphosenzyklus (2003) all listed in the Picasa album Years Full of Colors

Four Colors in Literature - Musil's Man without qualities


I also remember the strange confusion in defining 3- respectively 4-sectors color wheels.
In Man without qualities there is a quotation of antipodal color symbolism, which I tried to
decipher.
In chapter 25, The Siamese Twins Musil must have considered yellow and blue as the
complementary color pairs, as well as red and green, whereas he considered the mixture of
antipodes violet or purple:
We might dress ourselves in an opposite pattern, Agathe delightedly responded. Yellow
one of us, and the other blue, or red opposite to green. And our hair might be colored
violet or purple27.
The quotation does not meet Goethe's nor Newton's theory. However searching the web I identified
the four color system of Ewald Hering, explaining Musil's expression. The 4 color system also
has been applied to setup the Natural Color System (NCS).

Summary
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.28".
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
Asnires (1887, Paris), Two Lovers (Walking Couple) (1888, Arles) and Couple Walking among
Olive Trees (Saint-Remy, May 1890).

27 Own translation from German to English - Page 904-905 in Rowohlt's Gesammelte Werke von Robert Musil (1978)
- Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften Teil 3 Ins tausendjhrige Reich (chapter 25, The Siamese Twins).
Original: Wir knnen uns ja auch gerade entgegengesetzt kleiden entgegnete Agathe belustigt. Gelb der eine, wenn
der andere blau ist, oder rot neben grn, und das Haar knnen wir violett oder purpurn frben, und ich mache mir
einen Buckel und du dir einen Bauch: und trotzdem sind wir Zwillinge! (904-905) Kapitel 25 - Projekt GutenbergDE - SPIEGEL ONLINE
28 Vincent van Gogh Paintings from Paris

Appendix I 494 To Theo. Nuenen, on or about Saturday, 18 April 1885 29


The ancients accepted only three primary colors, yellow, red and blue, and modern painters dont
accept any others. These three colors, in fact, are the only ones that cant be broken down and are
irreducible.
The whole world knows that the suns rays break down into a series of seven colors, which Newton
called primary: violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange and red; but its clear that the name
primary wouldnt fit three of these colors, which are composite, since orange is made with red and
yellow green with yellow and blue violet with blue and red. As for indigo, it cant be counted
among the primary colors, either, since its no more than a variety of blue.
We must therefore acknowledge with Antiquity that in nature there are only three truly elementary
colors, which, by being mixed two by two, create three other composite colors, called binaries:
orange, green and violet.
These rudiments, developed by modern scholars, have led to the notion of certain laws, which form
a luminous theory of colors a theory that E. Delacroix mastered scientifically and thoroughly,
after having instinctively known it. 2v:4 (See Grammaire des arts du dessin, 3rd ed., Renouard).
If one combines two of the primary colors yellow and red, for example, in order to create a
binary color, orange, this binary color will attain its maximum brilliance when one places it close to
the third primary color, not used in the mixture.
Similarly, if one combines red and blue to produce violet that binary color the violet will be
heightened by the immediate proximity of yellow. Lastly, if one combines yellow and blue to form
green, this green will be heightened by the immediate proximity of red.
Each of the three primary colors is rightly called Complementary in relation to the binary color that
corresponds with it. Thus blue is the complementary of orange, yellow is the complementary of
violet, and red the complementary of green.
Vice versa, each of the composite colors is the complementary of the primary color not used in the
mixture. This reciprocal heightening is whats called the law of simultaneous contrast. 2v:5
If the complementary colors are taken at equal value, thats to say, at the same degree of brightness
and light, their juxtaposition will raise both the one and the other to an intensity so violent that
human eyes will scarcely be able to bear to look at it.
And by a singular phenomenon, THESE SAME COLORS, WHICH ARE HEIGHTENED BY BEING JUXTAPOSED,
WILL DESTROY ONE ANOTHER BY BEING MIXED. Thus when one mixes together blue and orange in
equal quantities, the orange being no more orange than the blue is blue the mixing destroys the
two tones and the result is an absolutely colorless grey.
But if one mixes together two complementaries in unequal proportions, they only partially
destroy one another, and youll have A BROKEN TONE which will be a variety of grey. That
being so, new contrasts will emerge from the juxtaposition of two complementaries, one of which is
pure and the other broken. The contest being unequal, one of these two colors triumphs, and the
intensity of the dominant one doesnt prevent there being harmony between the two. 2r:6
Because if one now brings together similar colors in the pure state, but with differing degrees of
energy, for example, dark blue and light blue, one will obtain a different effect, in which there will
be a contrast by virtue of the difference in intensity, and harmony by virtue of the similarity.
Lastly, if two similar colors are juxtaposed, one in the pure state, the other broken for example,
pure blue with grey blue, the result will be another sort of contrast which will be tempered by the
analogy between them.
29 (494) Letter to Theo. Nuenen, on or about Saturday, 18 April 1885

One can thus see that there exist several ways, different from each other, but equally infallible, of
strengthening, supporting, attenuating or neutralizing the effect of a color, and they involve working
on whats next to it by touching what isnt the color itself.
In order to heighten and harmonize his colors, he uses the contrast between complementaries and
agreement between analogues all together, in other words, the repetition of a vivid tone by the same
broken tone.10

Appendix II - Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh 30


Arles, 3 September 1888
My dear Theo,
I spent yesterday with the Belgian, who also has a sister among the vingtistes. The weather was
not fine, but a very good day for talking; we went for a walk and anyway saw some very fine things
at the bullfight and outside the town. We talked more seriously about the plan, that if I keep a place
in the south, he ought to set up a sort of post among the collieries. Then Gauguin and I and he, if the
importance of a picture made it worth the journey, could change places - and so be sometimes in the
north, but in familiar country with a friend in it, and sometimes in the south.
You will soon see him, this young man with the look of Dante, because he is going to Paris, and if
you put him up - if the room is free - you will be doing him a good turn; he is very distinguished in
appearance, and will become so, I think, in his painting.
He likes Delacroix, and we talked a lot about Delacroix yesterday. He even knew the violent study
for the Bark of Christ.
Well, thanks to him I have at last a first sketch of that picture which I have dreamt of for so long the poet. He posed for me. His line head with that keen gaze stands out in my portrait against a
starry sky of deep ultramarine; for clothes, a short yellow coat, a collar of unbleached linen, and
spotted tie. He gave me two sittings in one day.
Yesterday I had a letter from our sister, who has seen a great deal. Ah, if she could marry an
artist it would not be so bad. Well, we must go on inducing her to develop her personality
rather than her artistic abilities.
I have finished L'Immortel by Daudet. I rather like the saying of the sculptor Vdrine, that to
achieve fame is something like ramming the lighted end of your cigar into your mouth when you
are smoking. But I certainly like L'Immortel less, far less than Tartarin.
You know, it seems to me that L'Immortel is not so fine in color as Tartarin, because it reminds me
with its mass of true and subtle observations of the dreary pictures of Jean Brend which are so dry
and cold. Now Tartarin is really great, with the greatness of a masterpiece, just like Candide.
I do strongly ask you to keep my studies of this place as open to the air as possible, because they are
not yet thoroughly dry. If they remain shut up or in the dark the colors will get devalued. So the
portrait of The Young Girl, The Harvest(a wide landscape with the ruin in the background and
the line of the Alpilles), the little Seascape, the Garden with the weeping tree and clumps of
conifers, if you could put these on stretchers it would be well. I am rather keen on those. You will
easily see by the drawing of the little seascape that it is the most thought out.
I am having two oak frames made for my new peasant's head and for my Poet study. Oh, my dear
boy, sometimes I know so well what I want. I can very well do without God both in my life and in
my painting, but I cannot, ill as I am, do without something which is greater than I, which is my life
- the power to create.
And if, defrauded of the power to create physically, a man tries to create thoughts in place of
children, he is still very much part of humanity.
And in a picture I want to say something comforting as music is comforting. I want to paint men
and women with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize, and which we seek
to confer by the actual radiance and vibration of our colorings.
30 Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh : 3 September 1888

Portraiture so understood does not become like an Ary Scheffer, just because there is a blue sky
behind as in the St. Augustine. For Ary Scheffer is so little of a colorist.
But it would be more in harmony with what Eug. Delacroix attempted and brought off in his Tasso
in Prison, and many other pictures, representing a real man. Ah! portraiture, portraiture with the
thought, the soul of the model in it, that is what I think must come.
The Belgian and I talked a lot yesterday about the advantages and disadvantages of this place. We
quite agree regarding both. And on the great advantage it would be to us if we could move now
North, now South.
He is going to stay with McKnight again so as to live more cheaply. That, however, has I think one
disadvantage, because living with a slacker makes one slack.
I think you would enjoy meeting him, he is still young. I think he will ask your advice about buying
Japanese prints and Daumier lithographs. As to these - the Daumiers - it would be well to get some
more of them, because later there will be none to be got.
The Belgian was saying that he paid 80 francs for board and lodging with McKnight. So what a
difference there is in living together, since I have to pay 45 a month for nothing but lodging. And so
I always come back to the same reckoning, that with Gauguin I should not spend more than I do
alone, and be no worse off. But we must consider that they were very badly housed, not for
sleeping, but for the possibility of work at home.
So I am always between two currents of thought, first the material difficulties, turning round and
round to make a living; and second, the study of color. I am always in hope of making a discovery
there, to express the love of two lovers by a marriage of two complementary colors, their mingling
and their opposition, the mysterious vibrations of kindred tones. To express the thought of a brow
by the radiance of a light tone against a sombre background.
To express hope by some star, the eagerness of a soul by a sunset radiance. Certainly there is
nothing in that of trompe d'oeil realism, but isn't it something that actually exists?
Good-by for the present. I will tell you another time when the Belgian may be leaving,, because I
shall see him again tomorrow.
With a handshake,
Ever yours, Vincent
The Belgian says that his people at home have a de Groux, the study for the Benedicit in the
Brussels Museum.
The portrait of the Belgian is something like the portrait of Reid which you have, in execution.
At this time, Vincent was 35 year old
Source:
Vincent van Gogh. Letter to Theo van Gogh. Written 3 September 1888 in
Arles. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert
Harrison, number 531.
URL: http://webexhibits.org/vangogh/letter/18/531.htm.
This letter may be freely used, in accordance with the
WebExhibits online museum

terms of

Appendix III The sources for color symbolism


(Extracted from Scribd): The Color Symbolism of Philosophers by jwr47

September 2012 I was lucky to discover some sources for color symbolism. First of all I found
Frederick Solomon's Critique of Modern Art31 in which the background of ancient symbolism is
explained. Only a few samples will be listed here from my analysis: The Symbolism of the Colors
Purple, White, Red (Uploaded 09/05/12).
Solomon refers to some interesting historical examples including:

The symbolic value of colors, its message for every symbol has a message can only be
understood if its meaning is known. The Byzantine mosaics of Ravenna for instance cannot
be understood unless one knows, that is, he as heard and learned what they stand for. Even
for the uninitiated such art may be beautiful and full of atmosphere, indeed complete as to
its artistic value; but only if one knows that blue means charity and red means love will he
be able to read the paintings and understand their message (page 211)

The symbols were put there to be understood, and that was not even difficult as their
meaning was handed down from generation to generation (page 211).

Colors in Oriental Carpets have a definite meaning only for the initiate (page 217)

Frederick Solomon also quotes Josephus (37 c. 100AD), who explained the ancient biblical color
symbols of the temple at Jerusalem in his work: The Wars Of The Jews 32, Book V - Chapter 5.
Section 4 in: A Description Of The Temple:
Section 4. As to the holy house itself, which was placed in the midst [of the inmost
court], that most sacred part of the temple, it was ascended to by twelve steps; and in
front its height and its breadth were equal, and each a hundred cubits, though it was
behind forty cubits narrower; for on its front it had what may be styled shoulders on
each side, that passed twenty cubits further. Its first gate was seventy cubits high, and
twenty-five cubits broad; but this gate had no doors; for it represented the universal
visibility of heaven, and that it cannot be excluded from any place. Its front was covered
with gold all over, and through it the first part of the house, that was more inward, did
all of it appear; which, as it was very large, so did all the parts about the more inward
gate appear to shine to those that saw them; but then, as the entire house was divided
into two parts within, it was only the first part of it that was open to our view. Its height
extended all along to ninety cubits in height, and its length was fifty cubits, and its
breadth twenty. But that gate which was at this end of the first part of the house was, as
we have already observed, all over covered with gold, as was its whole wall about it; it
had also golden vines above it, from which clusters of grapes hung as tall as a man's
height. But then this house, as it was divided into two parts, the inner part was lower
than the appearance of the outer, and had golden doors of fifty-five cubits altitude, and
sixteen in breadth; but before these doors there was a veil of equal largeness with the
doors. It was a Babylonian curtain, embroidered with blue, and fine linen, and scarlet,
and purple, and of a contexture that was truly wonderful. Nor was this mixture of
colors without its mystical interpretation, but was a kind of image of the universe; for
by the scarlet there seemed to be enigmatically signified fire, by the fine flax the earth,
by the blue the air, and by the purple the sea; two of them having their colors the
foundation of this resemblance; but the fine flax and the purple have their own origin
for that foundation, the earth producing the one, and the sea the other. This curtain had
31 Critique of Modern Art by Frederick Solomon (1970)
32 The History Of The Destruction Of Jerusalem

also embroidered upon it all that was mystical in the heavens, excepting that of the
[twelve] signs, representing living creatures.
Having found these valuable interpretations I searched for the sources and found Josephus' works in
the Web.
From Flavius Josephus' translations by William Whiston I searched for keywords and found the
following contemporary excerpt of color symbolism in Antiquities of the Jews:

Book III: Moses' Tabernacle in the Wilderness33


A reference is given in the description of Moses' Tabernacle in the Wilderness, for which the Bible
prescribes the use of four elementary colors: blue, scarlet, purple and white. However Josephus
does not explain these colors yet, although these are the same colors which have been documented
for the temple:
HEREUPON the Israelites rejoiced at what they had seen and heard of their conductor, and
were not wanting in diligence according to their ability; for they brought silver, and gold,
and brass, and of the best sorts of wood, and such as would not at all decay by putrefaction;
camels' hair also, and sheep-skins, some of them dyed of a blue color, and some of a scarlet;
some brought the flower for the purple color, and others for white, with wool dyed by the
flowers aforementioned; and fine linen and precious stones, which those that use costly
ornaments set in ouches of gold; they brought also a great quantity of spices; for of these
materials did Moses build the tabernacle, which did not at all differ from a movable and
ambulatory temple.
Basically the color scheme is fourfold and includes white, which often is referred to as fine linen.
The description notes the absence of the figures of animals
Now on each side of the gates there stood three pillars, which were inserted into the concave
bases of the gates, and were suited to them; and round them was drawn a curtain of fine
linen; but to the gates themselves, which were twenty cubits in extent, and five in height, the
curtain was composed of purple, and scarlet, and blue, and fine linen, and embroidered with
many and divers sorts of figures, excepting the figures of animals.
...
But at the front, where the entrance was made, they placed pillars of gold, that stood on
bases of brass, in number seven; but then they spread over the tabernacle veils of fine linen
and purple, and blue, and scarlet colors, embroidered.
...
It (the priests' vestment) is embroidered with flowers of scarlet, and purple, and blue, and
fine twined linen, but the warp was nothing but fine linen.

33 Antiquities Of The Jews Book III, Chapter 6 and 7

Contents
8 September 1888 Red & Green in The Night Caf.....................................................................1
The Couple in The Night Caf.........................................................................................................2
Portrait of the poet Eugene Boch (3 September 1888)....................................................................3
Courting couples in the Voyer d'Argenson Park, Asnires (spring 1887) .......................................4
Two Lovers (Walking Couple), March 1888 (Arles).......................................................................5
A sunday at Eindhoven (December 1883)....................................................................................6
Couple Walking among Olive Trees (May 1890)............................................................................7
536 To Theo. Nuenen, on or about Tuesday, 20 October 1885........................................................8
Postscript section.........................................................................................................................8
Chronological flow of Vincent's color and color symbolism studies..............................................9
Sources for Couples' symbolism....................................................................................................10
From a Letter dated 21 March 1883..........................................................................................10
From a Letter dated 11 July 1883..............................................................................................10
The androgynous symbolism in Gauguin's sculptures...................................................................10
The symbol of the universe............................................................................................................11
Equivalent Color Coding in my own Paintings.............................................................................13
Four Colors in Literature - Musil's Man without qualities.........................................................14
Summary........................................................................................................................................14
Appendix I 494 To Theo. Nuenen, on or about Saturday, 18 April 1885...................................15
Appendix II - Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh..................................................17
Appendix III The sources for color symbolism .........................................................................19
Book III: Moses' Tabernacle in the Wilderness.........................................................................20