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The Science of Van Gogh

The Dutch artist's sunflower paintings have attracted the attention of doctors and geneticists.

By | April 5, 2012

WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Of all of the works by 19th-century painter Vincent Van Gogh, perhaps he’s most well known for his sunflowers. The flowers, arranged in a vase, are cast in shades of yellow and brown, simultaneously signaling life along with impending death and decay.

His use of color is legendary among students and appreciators of art, and doctors and medical researchers have used his sometimes-surreal pallet as a basis for diagnosing Van Gogh with a panoply of medical disorders. In the past decades, paper authors and letter writers in the Journal of the American Medical Association have speculated that his odd color-sense was caused by the toxic side effects of epilepsy treatment, an herb used to make absinthe, as well as a variety of eye problems, from glaucoma to color-blindness.

No one will ever know for sure if illness affected Van Gogh's artwork, but that didn’t stop retired biologist and designer Kazunori Asada from trying to see the artist's work through colorblind eyes. After hearing his red-colorblind friend describe seeing and truly understanding the artwork, Asada created a mobile app to simulate red-colorblindness—and the comparison between the two seeing states is remarkable. “Finally I feel that van Gogh’s astounding qualities are available to me,” Asada wrote on his blog. “The flowers are more tangible.”

One of Van Gogh's sunflower paintings: Original (left) and Colorblind-simulated (right)
One of Van Gogh's sunflower paintings: Original (left) and Colorblind-simulated (right)
COURTESY OF KAZUNORI ASADA

But if you look closely at the picture above, you’ll notice that color is not the only thing slightly off about the painting. One of the sunflower variants portrayed lacks the recognizable black sunflower center and, instead, looks rather like a dandelion, with long thin petals bursting out.

These represent a sunflower variant that University of Georgia plant biologist John Burke studies in his lab—not to unravel any secrets of Van Gogh (although he admits that the connection is quite compelling), but because they might provide insight into the evolution of plants.

“The sunflower family is most speciose family of flowering plants,” and the variation in flower heads affects how easily they are pollinated by bees and butterflies, said Burke. He studies the genetics behind sunflower variation to understand how “changes in these genes might influence diversification rate in the family.”

Double-flowered mutant sunflower
Double-flowered mutant sunflower

Performing simple Mendellian crosses, Burke created the double-flowered mutant, which was “likely the same mutation that Van Gogh was painting,” he said. Molecular studies showed that these flowers have a 999-basepair insertion in the HaCYC2c gene, which influences petal development. This mutation changes where the gene is expressed: instead of staying put in the yellow sunflower petals, the double-flowered mutant also expresses it in the discs, the short and stubby florets that make up the flower head and eventually develop into seeds.

This mutation essentially turns the entire flower head into a puffball, festooned with petals and the gene  expressed throughout. Burke's paper was published last week (March 29) in PLoS Genetics.

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Comments

April 6, 2012

And Matisse saw women with half-green faces because of? This is a ton of BS.

Avatar of: Len Banaszak

Len Banaszak

Posts: 6

April 6, 2012

The vanGogh article is baloney! Colors are  selected off a palette and then mixed to whatever the artist decides he wants.  Analysis of the results only reveals something about the psycho of the analyzer ---  not the artist!

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April 6, 2012

And Matisse saw women with half-green faces because of? This is a ton of BS.

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Posts: 0

April 6, 2012

The vanGogh article is baloney! Colors are  selected off a palette and then mixed to whatever the artist decides he wants.  Analysis of the results only reveals something about the psycho of the analyzer ---  not the artist!

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Posts: 0

April 8, 2012

I don't get this. The sunflowers look like a variety of different sunflowers, picked, put in a vase and painted. There are many sunflowers with shades of brown in the center. They are not dead and dying. Where is the death and decay in the painting? Is this the interpretation of someone that knows nothing of the variety of sunflowers out there. (I'm referring to the brown and yellow statement from the first paragraph) Petal loss might be seen as dying. I find my daffodils still beautiful as they dry out and age. Sunflowers are going to seed....life, new seedlings, food for birds and humans.
As I read this it makes me think that people have lost touch with nature and spend little time out in nature and looking at lighting. Not only do Sunflowers come in many shapes and colors but so does light. Depending on the day and the lighting everything looks different. Maybe only people that go outside often at different times of the day under different weather conditions ever really notice this. Like being able to tell a tree species by the bark or variations in snowflakes. I don't find Van Gogh's colors odd at all. Obviously he was not a realist so the colors do not necessarily reflect realism either. I often times modify my photographs. The colors aren't "real" when I see them on my computer. They often times will not reflect the colors I was seeing. I might enhance the coloring to make it look more "real" or sometimes I take something that has "real" coloring and modify it to enhance the picture of the object and my enjoyment of it.
For me, the flowers are as they exist in a healthy state. The colors Van Gogh used could be found naturally or he might have enhanced the look for aesthetic reasons. As for Asada's modifications, they just take a beautiful painting and make it look drab. I don't get any of this article except the discussion of the genetics. I agree with the other two posts.

Avatar of: Margmeg

Margmeg

Posts: 1

April 8, 2012

I don't get this. The sunflowers look like a variety of different sunflowers, picked, put in a vase and painted. There are many sunflowers with shades of brown in the center. They are not dead and dying. Where is the death and decay in the painting? Is this the interpretation of someone that knows nothing of the variety of sunflowers out there. (I'm referring to the brown and yellow statement from the first paragraph) Petal loss might be seen as dying. I find my daffodils still beautiful as they dry out and age. Sunflowers are going to seed....life, new seedlings, food for birds and humans.
As I read this it makes me think that people have lost touch with nature and spend little time out in nature and looking at lighting. Not only do Sunflowers come in many shapes and colors but so does light. Depending on the day and the lighting everything looks different. Maybe only people that go outside often at different times of the day under different weather conditions ever really notice this. Like being able to tell a tree species by the bark or variations in snowflakes. I don't find Van Gogh's colors odd at all. Obviously he was not a realist so the colors do not necessarily reflect realism either. I often times modify my photographs. The colors aren't "real" when I see them on my computer. They often times will not reflect the colors I was seeing. I might enhance the coloring to make it look more "real" or sometimes I take something that has "real" coloring and modify it to enhance the picture of the object and my enjoyment of it.
For me, the flowers are as they exist in a healthy state. The colors Van Gogh used could be found naturally or he might have enhanced the look for aesthetic reasons. As for Asada's modifications, they just take a beautiful painting and make it look drab. I don't get any of this article except the discussion of the genetics. I agree with the other two posts.

Avatar of: Robin Craig

Robin Craig

Posts: 1457

April 9, 2012

This reminds me of what someone, I think Peter Medawar, once said about the obvious flaw in attempts to explain El Greco's elongated images as the result of an eye disorder, and the reasoning is even more obvious here (where one can't even propose distance effects). They are trying to interpret the colours Van Gogh used as his replicating what he sees with some vision disorder (for if he wasn't trying to replicate what he saw, then the argument falls down entirely). But if he had a vision disorder, he would make the sunflowers the same colour TO HIM as the real ones were TO HIM. They would therefore either be the same as the real colours, or arbitrarily different. To provide evidence of the "colour-blind" idea, for example, the colour-blind simulation would have to look the same as what real sunflowers look like to the colour-blind, and no such evidence is presented.

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Posts: 0

April 9, 2012

This reminds me of what someone, I think Peter Medawar, once said about the obvious flaw in attempts to explain El Greco's elongated images as the result of an eye disorder, and the reasoning is even more obvious here (where one can't even propose distance effects). They are trying to interpret the colours Van Gogh used as his replicating what he sees with some vision disorder (for if he wasn't trying to replicate what he saw, then the argument falls down entirely). But if he had a vision disorder, he would make the sunflowers the same colour TO HIM as the real ones were TO HIM. They would therefore either be the same as the real colours, or arbitrarily different. To provide evidence of the "colour-blind" idea, for example, the colour-blind simulation would have to look the same as what real sunflowers look like to the colour-blind, and no such evidence is presented.

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Posts: 0

April 14, 2012

spellcheck fail: that should be "palette" (se Len's correct usage in comments), not "pallet". 
I find the colorblind analysis less than persuasive (reproductions of the painting--I've not seen the original--seem pretty compelling to me).
Perhaps van Gogh was playing with how much visual variety there is among sunflowers and how much of that can be communicated with a limited palette of colors (yellow, brown, green, white). An analysis of which pigments are and are not present in the apinting would be intersting.

Avatar of: emyrtlemartin

emyrtlemartin

Posts: 5

April 14, 2012

spellcheck fail: that should be "palette" (se Len's correct usage in comments), not "pallet". 
I find the colorblind analysis less than persuasive (reproductions of the painting--I've not seen the original--seem pretty compelling to me).
Perhaps van Gogh was playing with how much visual variety there is among sunflowers and how much of that can be communicated with a limited palette of colors (yellow, brown, green, white). An analysis of which pigments are and are not present in the apinting would be intersting.

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