The Life and Incredible Use of Color and Symbolism in the Artworks of Vincent Van Gogh

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Updated: Nov 17, 2022
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The Life and Incredible Use of Color and Symbolism in the Artworks of Vincent Van Gogh essay

Vincent van Gogh, commonly referred to as Van Gogh, is a mentally tormented post impressionist artist from the late 1800’s. He was best known for his textured paintings that heavily incorporated color theory. Being extremely emotional and opinionated, he was able to use art as an outlet to express these feelings, such as in his masterpiece: Lullaby: Madame Augustine Roulin Rocking a Cradle (La Berceuse). This is a portrait, completed in 1889, of his friend Augustine Roulin, a mother of 3 and the wife of the postman Joseph Roulin (Art Institute of Chicago). He started this portrait before his admission to a mental asylum, and completed it after his release from the asylum. Lullaby, in Van Gogh’s own words, “his best work” (Art Institute of Chicago), is commonly examined by first looking at his marvelous color scheme, which captivates the viewer and allows him to admire the portrait. Then, the viewer moves on to examine his use of symbolism throughout the painting, which exemplifies the importance of women. The final point to examine is Van Gogh’s purpose of the painting, hoping it would comfort those at sea.

Due to his work in color theory, Van Gogh is often praised for his impressive color scheme, such as that in this painting: where we can see his beautifully crafted background. The maroon wallpaper complements the predominantly green, white, and yellow background that exist upwards from Augustine’s waist. This background is thinly painted onto the canvas, which prompts the viewer to focus on Augustine’s figure. He outlines her figure in black, allowing the eye to focus on the shades of green that Augustine is dressed in. The emerald green skirt and forest colored blouse beautifully complement her acid yellow face and orange hair. With this powerful medley of robust colors the viewer is easily able to appreciate Van Gogh’s work in color theory through his portrait of Augustine.

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 Van Gogh is also known for his incredible use of symbolism, especially in his choice of color. This can be seen in his unique color choice for Augustine’s face. Van Gogh uses acid yellow, similar to the flooring in his artwork, The Night Cafe, which was used to give the cafe an eerie look. Van Gogh did that because he hated the cafe, but that is not the case in this painting, in reference to a letter Van Gogh wrote to Theo, “the yellow and orange tones of the head will gain in brilliance by the proximity of the yellow wings” (Art Institute of Chicago). We can propose that the use of acid yellow in this case is to honor Augustine Roulin. He takes this a step further by painting the words, “La Berceuse,” on the arm of the chair. In the context of this painting, La Berceuse roughly translates to, “a woman who rocks an infant in a cradle”(Art Institute of Chicago). In fact, Augustine had to raise three of her own children. Thus, we can infer that part of the reason he created this portrait was to praise women and their role in raising children.

Van Gogh’s main purpose of the portrait is the final point to examine. Drawing from the previous paragraph, “La Berceuse,” translates to: “a woman who rocks an infant in a cradle.” The cradle is significant because it is a symbol of tranquility and peace. This meaning was directed toward fishermen, believing that the rocking of a ship would help remind them of their mother’s, rocking them to sleep singing a lullaby (Art Institute of Chicago). This soothing image was replicated 5 times after his close friend, and fellow artist, Paul Gauguin left him (Art Institute of Chicago). According to Van Gogh creating multiple copies was to, “ensure the availability of his best work to all who might want it” (Art Institute of Chicago). While that might be true, considering the last copy of this painting was created a year before he took his own life, it’s a possibility he painted copies to bring himself peace.

Sadly, Van Gogh never found peace on Earth. He was constantly tormented by his own mind, and ended his life in 1890. Van Gogh, continues to live in museums and captivates audiences around the world with his extraordinary use of color theory and paint texture. In one of Van Gogh’s final paintings, Lullaby: Madame Augustine Roulin Rocking a Cradle (La Berceuse), he once again astonishes the world with his use of complementary colors. The symbolism in the portrait is a twist from his painting of the Night Cafe because he used acid yellow to honor Augustine Roulin. Finally, the purpose of the painting goes beyond what he said, to “ensure the availability of his best work to all who might want it…” he painted this to bring peace to himself. Van Gogh’s incredible use of color and symbolism to portray his purpose will continue to captivate minds young and old for years to come.

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The Life and Incredible Use of Color and Symbolism in the Artworks of Vincent van Gogh. (2022, Nov 17). Retrieved from