How realistic are Vincent van Gogh’s colourful skies? Researchers from the Van Gogh Museum teamed up with a meteorologist from the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI) to try and answer this question.
The meeting was inspired by the painting Garden of the Asylum (1889), a work that Van Gogh painted in Saint-Rémy de Provence. The sky in the painting is a bright variegation of different hues of yellow, green and purple. We know that Vincent van Gogh preferred to paint after nature and stay close to reality, but is that also the case in this work?
Green skies following a volcano eruption
The Van Gogh Museum researchers and the KNMI expert jointly examined several sensational skies from Van Gogh’s oeuvre. When examining Garden of the Asylum, the KNMI expert offered two hypotheses. He originally thought that the coloured sky could be the result of a volcano eruption elsewhere: such an eruption is known to sometimes produce green skies. Another possibility was the so-called ‘green flash’, a phenomenon that occurs during a clear sunset. Shortly before the sun completely sets, a green strip briefly appears on the horizon.
Both hypotheses were ultimately rejected. The possibility of a volcano eruption, for example, did not gel with the amount of green skies painted by Van Gogh; they frequently make an appearance in his Southern French oeuvre. The green flash at sunset also proved not to be a viable explanation. Van Gogh might have witnessed this rare phenomenon, but it is only visible for a matter of seconds. Such a green flash could therefore only be painted from memory. In Garden of the Asylum, the sky immediately above the horizon is orange-yellow, and the swathes of cloud suggest that the sky is not clear, which it would need to be for the green flash to occur. So how did Van Gogh arrive at his colourful skies?
It can generally be assumed that Van Gogh preferred to paint after nature and remain close to reality. The meteorologist examined a range of paintings together with the researchers. In many cases, the different types of clouds, the sunset and sunrise, the twilight and the colours of the skies could be attributed to natural phenomena. We know that Van Gogh enjoyed working with complimentary colours. For the sake of the colour effect, he adjusted colours or made them more intense.
In Garden of the Asylum, Van Gogh will have intensified the bright shades of the sunset to create a dramatic contrast with the dark, earthy colours of the garden. Van Gogh’s decision to often paint uniformly green skies in his later oeuvre can perhaps by explained by his shift in preference at the time to a flatter decorative effect. In that period, the blue, realistic skies that suggest depth were therefore replaced by solid green skies.
The meeting with the meteorologist provided the researchers with new insights into various types of clouds and skies found in Van Gogh’s oeuvre. We will return to these insights in future newsletters. The KNMI expert, together with other specialists in the field of flora and fauna, will remain a valuable contact to help us identify and describe meteorological phenomena in Van Gogh’s oeuvre.
The meeting with the meteorologist was organised as part of the ‘Collection catalogue 3’ research project. This catalogue will be the final part of a series of publications exploring Van Gogh’s drawings and paintings in the museum collection. Part 3 addresses the paintings from the final years of Van Gogh’s life (1888-1890).