Sensorium

A Quest to Understand Extraordinary Experiences of Sense

Vincent Van Gogh Was Likely a Synesthete

René D. Quiñones finds cross-sensory evidence in a Van Gogh letter

Vincent Van Gogh
Self-portrait, Vincent Van Gogh
Creative Commons -- this one's in the public domain
It was New Year's Eve in 1881 and Vincent Van Gogh was just 29 years old and living in The Hague.

He decided to write his brother and benefactor, the art dealer, Theo. In the thoughtful correspondence, he updated his caring sibling about the work he was doing in lithographs.

"Some time ago you rightly said that every colorist has his own characteristic scale of colors. This is also the case with Black and White (sic), it is the same after all — one must be able to go from the highest light to the deepest shadow, and this with only a few simple ingredients. Some artists have a nervous hand at drawing, which gives their technique something of the sound peculiar to a violin, for instance, Lemud, Daumier, Lançon — others, for example, Gavarni and Bodmer, remind one more of piano playing. Do you feel this too? Millet is perhaps a stately organ."

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This is a very unique synesthetic impression, what might be called technique—timbre synesthesia.

Though synesthetes have suspected Vincent Van Gogh may have had synesthesia for some time, in part due to the modern belief that he had Asperger's Syndrome which is often linked to the trait of blended senses, this tantalizing evidence only came to light recently when the synesthete blogger, René D. Quiñones of Puerto Rico, was researching the artist online and found a cache of his letters.

René says he found the correspondence by chance but had always suspected Van Gogh might share his trait. "I wanted to read his letters because I knew he had written more than 100 letters to his brother Theo, and I think that letter was the third I read, and that paragraph was like an alarm."

The noted synesthetic artist Carol Steen of New York, who is the co-founder and a board member of the American Synesthesia Association (ASA), has been presenting at conferences on the photisms she finds in major artworks for years. Photisms are those shapes synesthetes see in response to other senses. She first noticed photisms showing up in her own work.

Black Comma by Carol Steen
Black Comma by Carol Steen, sculpted in 1980, seems reminiscent of some of Kluver's Form Constants and Van Gogh's brushstrokes.
Courtesy Carol Steen.
"One day, in the early 90s I was searching deep in my painting and sculpture storage area for a painting to send to an art exhibition.  Coincidentally, I had just read Richard Cytowic's wonderful book, The Man Who Tasted Shapes.  In it I came across Mardi J. Horowitz's illustration of Kluver's Form Constants (synesthetic photisms in response to peyote catalogued by Kluver.) Something about the shapes in this illustration was familiar and as I was going through my works I came across a piece of sculpture I  had made in 1980. I was really startled. It looked just like a Kluver Form Constant."

She ran back to her studio to see if there were any other form constants in her other work, only to see them with new eyes and realize they were awash in them. After all, if painters draw inspiration from what they see—why not synesthesia?

"In addition, in Cytowic's book, there was a story about David Hockney in which he said he was a synesthete. When I looked closely at Hockney's works I saw the same form constants were in his works too. These two discoveries happened when the internet was in its infancy so it took me a while to find other artists whose work was synesthetic. (It was harder then to find and confirm information.) Two other famous synesthetic painters are Charles Burchfield, confirmed by Nancy Weekly, and Joan Mitchell confirmed by Patricia Albers," she says.

Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh
Can you see the commas and other photisms in Van Gogh's night sky?
Courtesy Carol Steen/Public Doman
The two Van Gogh paintings in which she sees synesthetic forms most quickly, are Starry Night, and Wheatfields with Crows, but his self portraits also seem to have brush strokes mirroring the form constants.

Ms. Steen says her friend and collaborator Greta Berman coincidentally just visited the curators at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and spoke with them about possible evidence of synesthesia in his work before the letter was found.  But she calls the letter the firmest evidence she's seen so far confirming her longstanding intuition.

Van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime and died at the age of 37,  before he would see any success. His mother threw away crates filled with his work but did live long enough to possibly regret it as he was ultimately hailed as a genius. He is now considered the greatest Dutch painter after Rembrandt.

Maureen Seaberg is an author and synesthete dedicated to advancing understanding of synesthesia.

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