The Colors of Van Gogh’s “Mother”

Figure 1, a and b

Figure 1, a and b

John Griswold, Conservator
July 23, 2020

So what’s the deal with Van Gogh’s portrait of his mother? Why does she look so sickly green and yellow? (Don’t get me wrong—this has always been one of my favorite paintings in the Norton Simon collection.) The label text states that the reds he used have faded. But, how did he use red? Mixed with other pigments? As a thin glaze on the surface? When did the reds fade? Did he know, and was he concerned?

We know from a letter to his sister Willemien that Van Gogh wasn’t “enormously happy” with the painting of their mother, Anna Cornelia van Gogh. He had written to his brother Theo: “I am doing a portrait of mother for myself. I cannot stand the colorless photograph, and I am trying to do one in harmony of color, as I see her in my memory. Ah, what portraits could be made from nature with photography and painting! I always hope that we are still to have a great revolution in portraiture.”

Figure 2

A Van Gogh painting at the National Gallery of Art called Roses—painted in 1890, two years after the Norton Simon portrait—helps to shed light on these questions. It shows a resplendent bouquet of white roses against a spring green background. There’s one problem—the roses were originally pink. So, white plus red equals pink—minus the red equals white again. As with the Norton Simon portrait, there is no sign of a transparent, thin red glaze, so Van Gogh likely mixed a small amount of red lake on his palette into his creamy oil paint. A “lake” pigment is made by treating a neutral pigment particle to accept a dye, imparting a brilliant hue.

As mentioned above, Van Gogh sought to imbue a black-and-white photograph of his mother with “a harmony of color.” He was particularly adept at combining complementary colors to achieve vibrancy from their harmonies. When the roses were pink, they would have served as a perfect complement to the light green. Such combinations of complementary colors fascinated Van Gogh.

The soft pinks of his mother’s face, set against the brilliant green background, and likely vibrating with greenish and yellow passages in the shadows and reflected light of her features, must have figured prominently in his efforts to create visual harmony in the portrait. He told Theo of his intention to achieve a gray or “ashy” quality to his mother’s face. Since complementary colors of the same value can combine to form what is called an “optical gray,” this may have been what Van Gogh was going for here—hence the pale yellowish-green hue mixed with red lake.

Van Gogh bought commercially prepared oil paint in tubes, and he was delighted with the myriad colors that became available in the second half of the 19th century. The introduction of aniline dyes was significant primarily to the textile industry as well as to artists. These dyes were used to make modern versions of lake colors. Unfortunately, many dyes are fugitive—that is, susceptible to fading when exposed to light. Van Gogh is known to have used red lake paints based both on a “natural” lake color—cochineal, a brilliant red extracted from insects—and eosin, one of the very first aniline dyes. Both are unstable.

Van Gogh was aware that some of his oil colors would fade, and he took measures to help counteract this tendency, according to Ella Hendriks, Head of Conservation at the Van Gogh Museum. His thick brushwork was partly intended to help keep the colors bright for a longer time. He wrote to Theo that “all the colors that Impressionism has made fashionable are unstable, all the more reason to boldly use them too raw, time will only soften them too much.”

In his mother’s portrait, the garment and hat were once described as “carmine,” a red that would have presented a complement to the greenish-blue background. The carmine, another term for cochineal, was applied as a transparent tint over dark Prussian blue, which now predominates, since this red has also partially faded.

I have made some preliminary test photographs, taking advantage of the built-in color correction software of my digital camera, which, as seen here, seems to re-establish more harmonious color relationships in the face and also alters the hue of the background. While far from scientific, these color-corrected photos help us envision what Van Gogh was trying to achieve. A more detailed study using X-ray fluorescence and X-ray diffraction would help map the distribution of specific red lake pigments, and could possibly lead to an accurate digital restoration of the original colors.

Figure 3–5

Figures 3–5

And what of Van Gogh’s photographic source? There are several extant versions of a photograph of his mother dating to this moment, but it is believed that a carte-de-visite, one of which is now in the collection of the Vincent Van Gogh Foundation, is the same one that Willemien sent to her brother. Curiously, it is a mirror image of the Norton Simon painting, but otherwise matches the features and position, as well as her bonnet.

Figures 6–8

Figures 6–8

When I superimposed the reversed photograph on the painting, I found a precise correspondence between the facial features. It seems that Van Gogh took advantage of an opaque projection device called an episcope. Such projectors were in common use in classrooms and among artists, and remain so today. When placed on a book page, a drawing or even a three-dimensional object such as a plant specimen, a mirror image was projected onto a screen or canvas. This is consistent with Van Gogh’s desire to establish the most accurate likeness of his mother, on which to build his “harmony of color,” his own step toward the revolution in portraiture he had envisioned.

John Griswold is the Conservator of the Norton Simon Museum, where he leads efforts to preserve and care for the Simon collections. This article is from the series "Dispatches from the Conservation Studio." 


Figure 1, a and b. At left is Van Gogh’s Portrait of the Artist’s Mother as it appears today, with yellowish-green hues predominating in the face and the background a vibrant green. On the right is a color corrected version, suggesting how it possibly may have looked before the reds faded.

Figure 2. Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853–1890), Roses, 1890, oil on canvas, Gift of Pamela Harriman in memory of W. Averell Harriman, National Gallery of Art

Figure 3. A detail of the face, automatically color-corrected by the software of the digital camera. A rosy pink has been restored to the flesh where the light falls directly on it, while the greenish-yellow hues of reflected light help model the form.

Figure 4. A color-corrected detail of the ear, with a range of pinkish hues restored. Bits of Van Gogh’s red strokes initially defining the form are glimpsed, further adding to the complex color harmonies.

Figure 5. The cool reflected light on the cheek, the light green of the iris and the cool green reflection above the pinkish eyelid bring out the lifelike appearance Van Gogh was striving to return to the black-and-white photograph of his mother. Here, the auto-corrections of the color software has rendered the background an almost turquoise blue. A more scientifically based study will help determine what the precise hue might have been.

Figure 6. A carte-de-visite of Van Gogh’s mother, Anna, possibly the one that he received from his sister Willemien. Another version of this image, reversed and with contrast enhanced, also exists, possibly made for publication in a magazine. The latter matches the position of the figure in the Norton Simon painting precisely, but it is unlikely to have been the version he used for reference. 

Figures 7 and 8. Van Gogh almost certainly projected an enlarged image of his carte-de-visite onto the canvas using an optical device called an episcope, in which the image was reversed upon projection. These images demonstrate the precise registration between the reversed photograph and the painted portrait.