Yellow Oils in the Mind, Along the Field

Like every self-important and slightly suicidal artistically-inclined high school student, I was obsessed with the mystery and pain present in Van Gogh’s solitary life. There is a sort of universality in his desperation to create something that will allow him to make sense of his interior pain against the exterior beauty of the world—a man isolated from everyone but for his brother’s letters who now not only exists in museums as an artistic pilgrimage destination but also on the backs of phone cases, on sweatshirts, on prints lining the hallways and dining rooms across the globe. The desperation to know and be known is so familiar, and the aesthetic beauty of his pieces are deepened and enriched by the backstory that at this point we all think we know. Van Gogh is so beloved, so universal, that he is in fact the only artist to have his very own immersive experience: throwing the colors he agonized over, the paint strokes he carefully or sloppily or lethargically or methodologically pressed onto canvas so long ago, throwing those bright yellows across the walls of dark rooms so that the public can step right into them and feel the cool artificial lamp bulb splay them across their face and arms and chests.

In this universality and public adoration comes the natural consequence of becoming the subject of speculation—in every mystery, in every private instance, we as viewers become a machine of fictionalization—  a bad game, say, of childhood telephone. What goes in: a sick man self mutilates after a night of tense arguing with a colleague and peer—what comes out: man slices off his own ear as a love token for a sex worker in town. I was not, as that aforementioned self-important and slightly suicidal high school student, exempt from participating in the rumor mill of a long dead genius. It was almost as if the wilder the myth, the bigger the man, the more I found myself exalting in his oils. There was one in particular that struck me between the ribs, right in the soft meat of my lung: Van Gogh, the reputable source of an anonymous internet poster claims, would regularly eat yellow paint in order to “put the happiness back inside him.” At the time, it was as if a gong had rung deep in my brain and everything reorganized—I  had already outfitted myself in his art on the back of my phone case, an all-over design on a sweatshirt, and a framed print in my childhood bedroom—but  now the very shade of yellow changed before my eyes. It was a desperation I could see in myself daily; a desire to get better and a fear that I never would, but a wild willingness to try just about anything. To share that with one of my idols? One of the most celebrated artists of all time? To not feel as alone for the first time in my little life? It was priceless. I found myself eating the proverbial paint, so to speak—wrapping myself in eye-searing hues of yellow wherever I could find it. Even to this day, nearly fifty percent of my belongings are a sort of cheery, ironic bulb of yellow. It’s almost as if I have tried to link myself to the artist in this way, or that we are sharing in a strange exercise in color psychotherapy together, attempting to bring yellow happiness to our brains.

Though it’s been disproven and Van Gogh never ate yellow paint to try to coat his insides with that vibrance, there is a sort of truth to his partiality towards  color; thick swatches of his work are present with it, lit from within. His famous pieces, Starry Night and his series of sunflowers, are dipped in that milk yellow, leaf ochre aura. Starry Night especially, with its huge rings of light that emanate throughout the night sky—one  of Van Gogh’s most well-known and treasured artistic choices. He was never a painter known for his tight blending, and the night sky seems almost like an ocean with its hills and valleys of swimming oil paints. Each brush stroke is present, tangible, a sort of fingerprint on the canvas that you can trace—you  can almost see him, sitting at the window where he looked out onto the sky which inspired him, slowly spreading its face into one of the most recognizable images of art history. Such a weighted thought, though he would’ve never been aware, staring out at the view that we know was from his asylum window in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in the south of France.

He watched the sun fall and the night rise and the stars which would present those massive auras of yellowed light that he captured meticulously against the dark blue of the sky—all  with the eyes of a man who might have suffered from Xanthopsia, a jaundice-induced disease which would have been caused by the medication he was known to be prescribed eating away at his liver, a medication consisting of foxglove and other mildly poisonous materials. This is where a large portion of that myth of yellow-paint-eating is based, if I had to venture to guess—though he was indeed eating toxic material that adversely affected his health, it was not oils and was instead prescribed by an asylum doctor in hopes that it would address his depressive episodes, his mania, and his seizure disorder. Instead, the side effects possible with the combination included such things as melancholic thought, hypochondria, headache, nausea, hallucination, vomiting, and effects to the actual eye itself: swelling, irritation, inflammation, and an overabundance of yellow in the individual’s vision, as well as an astigmatism which would portray lights as huge, blinding circles. Look at Starry Night again, then, with the thought of a man currently medicated in that asylum with materials which were attacking the very thing he used to see those glittering, cheery stars, those massive circles around each light source, the rings like those within trees arching out into the darkness. How he might’ve turned away from that scene, his eyes raw and aching, and blinked against the candlelit room, where the circles moved into the dancing flame and stayed.

There’s some irony, in retrospect, that I was so interested in Van Gogh and that yellow connection far before I learned of his asylum stay or the sickness that may have contributed to Starry Night. At the same time as I was learning of the yellow paint consumption of my favorite artist, my own doctor had prescribed me a strong antidepressant that was tearing my body apart in a way that was not identical to what we see in Van Gogh, but similar enough that I want to bite my tongue from the sheer dark humor of the situation. At the tender age of fifteen I was given an SSRI that would turn me into a functioning zombie for a few months, and then I was told it would meter out and I would feel normal for the first time in my life. What was not mentioned, and perhaps not even known about, was the fact that the next few years of my adolescence would be dogged by visual hallucinations, hostility, mood swings, suicidal thoughts, insomnia, and anorexia—as  well as, and to me the most terrifying, an incredibly increased heartrate and arrhythmia that lasted until I was off of the medication for four years. Again, it’s ironic that this was happening at the same time as I was desperately trying to connect to Van Gogh through color and mythos—not only because eating toxic oil paint would be similar to taking SSRIs that tried to kill me, but also because in reality he was also taking a sort of antidepressant in attempts to level himself out and become “normal.” The semi-permanent mutilation of our bodies in attempt to save ourselves from our minds was happening hundreds of years apart but nearly in spiritual tandem, as was every other terrified soul on earth before and after my trembling teenage hands held a bottle.

Even with this connective tissue, the responsibility we put on the artist’s memory is unmatched—this man, who no doubt felt so alone in his time, so unknown, who now is a household name a hundred years later—we seek something greater in his popularity. In turning over his mysteries, we are always looking for something from Van Gogh. Some key to his genius, some meaning to his life, some reasoning behind his manic actions— some way to understand him, so that we can understand ourselves. So that our suffering has meaning, too. Even his death has been subject to recent mythologization—mostly because, in recent rediscovery, the original claim of his suicide and what happened on that evening seems to be both disproven and simply unlikely. It is presumed that he shot himself in the chest after spending the afternoon painting alone in that very field in Auvers-sur-Oise, where he was renting a room just within the town—Wheat Field with Crows, that final piece, is eaten alive with a searing yellow. It licks up the foreground and into the sky, stalks of bright, cheery wheat edging against the darkening blue of a brewing storm. The viewer is surrounded, as if walking into the yellow blur of moving fronds, untouched by shadow—the crows, exploding from the grass as if startled by some explosive noise, are wrapped in the golden hues. The story goes that his painting lay finished and untouched as he held himself together with his artist’s hands clutching the blood inside until he returned to his room and laid down on his borrowed bed and closed his eyes and bled out and was so so alone and knew he was dying—a fitting, poetic end to a desperate and painful life. A sort of bow on the story of a man who was known to hurt himself, to have fits of mania that left him sans ear, even. It was an easy sort of conclusion. Sad man gets a sad death, suicidal man dies of suicide. Yet there is murmuring throughout the art history community that this may not be the case—in fact, many facts seem to point to the fact that suicide was an impossibility.

Van Gogh had no known gun, and there was not one left at the scene of his shooting. He was right-handed, and to shoot at such a close range you would need to use your left. He had just ordered a large shipment of paints to be delivered to his lodging and had just sent a letter to his brother with a tentative upbeatness that spoke to future plans. Forensic evidence on his body indicated that the gun had to have been more than a foot or two away from his body, as were no gunpowder burns evident. He walked all the way back to his room, concealing his injury the entire time. There was no way that the angle of the gunshot would correlate with any way that he would be able to hold the gun. It seems his suicide was not so cut and dry as would be immediately whispered at the time of his death. But what was the alternative? It was documented that, at the time, Van Gogh was perpetually teased by a group of local silver-spooned boys. They played pranks on him often, hiding snakes in his paint supplies. It has been suggested, through stories from the town that were exposed after decades, that the boys were using one of their fathers’ guns, that more often jammed than not, to pull a prank and startle Van Gogh while he was painting. It’s thought that the gun really did shoot, and when the boys scattered in shock. Van Gogh also fled the scene, whether out of fear or out of martyr-driven kindness to hide the crime of such young and naive children, even in their cruelty. He’d held his chest together and made it home, where he died on his bed, lips dry and caked and silent.

It’s a kind of balm, to consider that perhaps he did not commit suicide, as that young artist who spent much of my adolescence contemplating. It’s hard, in a way, to explain—but put simply, there is a kind of deep pain when thinking of such a tortured man who never, ever got better. It’s easier to think, as someone who faces medication to escape that pain daily, that maybe he did, for a period of time, feel that there was a future in his grasp. The art world, as we know, had just begun treating his paintings with the respect and adoration that is a shade of modern times but. nonetheless. was positive, and Van Gogh was aware and excited about it. He wrote often and in depth to his brother, Theo. He did activities; he enjoyed his art. Not everything was pain, pain, pain. I think, again, of that lingering rumor of the artist imbibing his paints. The yellow cascading down the pink of his throat, rolling like gasoline and burning the whole way. Maybe the fear that if he did not put himself into his paintings, he could put his paintings into himself.

I’ve always thought of Van Gogh’s pieces as deliberately tangible, maybe because of this desperation for touch. In 2016, the first “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience” was put on in Naples, Italy. It allows individuals to walk directly into the paintings as a full, 360-degree digital representation of 400 of Van Gogh’s sketches and paintings over the walls, floors, and ceilings. The envelopment means that viewers can step into Starry Night, or perhaps any of his other paintings, and walk over the oils with their unlaced chucks or touch the illness-induced rays of light extended across the sky with their reaching fingers. It’s a little intimate, and a little exploitative, both in the same way. These reproductions of his art, the imago of a sorts, are of course nowhere near the real thing, and saying it is would be akin to saying a hologram can feed a family of four. It’s simply pixels, where the actual painting is blood, sweat, and tears, months of bending over a tiny easel inhaling fumes and applying coat after coat of thick oils. But there is something intimate in wrapping yourself in that color—perhaps instead of imbibing the paint, you are wearing it on your skin for that moment before the light shifts and it arches onto a different wall. That yellow sinking into your face and eyelids, closed against the artificial lamps, thinking for a moment of how it would feel to be an agent of such artistic grandeur. How maybe, never eating the yellow paint in the way we whisper, Van Gogh found some sort of happiness in simply surrounding himself in it. How maybe, if you are the version of myself who latched onto the idea of self-harm through eating paint and praying for peace, you find yourself outfitting your entire life in the sort of canary yellow or mustard ochre that sears the eye and, somehow, soothes something animal in the mind.

In this, Wheat Field with Crows is a fitting, if ironic, end to an artistic career. That final painting, with the yellow splashed like splatters across the landscape, with the birds caught in a group mid-takeoff as though they were suddenly spooked by a loud, cracking noise, became his final touch on this world, perhaps his final choice made of his own volition, if the prank theory is to be believed. The explosion of that color that perhaps brought him some moment of joy, some light against the dark staining the corners of his mind, is so similar to the rich depth of his genius eking out over the art world long after his death. But in that moment, in that field moments before he died, Van Gogh simply did what felt right. What was organic to him and to the emotions that surged with the breeze. There is part of me that wonders if the final paint he dabbed onto his brush was that searingly cheery yellow, if he perhaps touched the wet brush to the corner of his mouth in thought, if he maybe last squeezed that overused tube of ochre, twisting it madly to ease out the final touch of his life. If maybe, before he roused from the pain and shock, when the gut wound knocked him off his feet and onto the ground, the wheat field brought him in and the stalks shuttered over him in the wind, and if all he could see was the yellow, yellow, yellow. 

Cover art: “Soft Thunder” by Suzanne Benton

Morgan Roth

Morgan Roth is a recent graduate of Northern Kentucky University’s MAE program and has had poetry previously published in Pidgeonholes and Many Nice Donkeys. They currently live and work in Kentucky in the liminal spaces carved by Cincinnati's fingers with their two cats, Jack and Jude, who workshop comedic acrobat routines while Morgan's back is turned. You can find Morgan on Twitter at @MorganSRoth.