Vincent Van Gogh is a true genius and one of the most remarkable artists in the world. His paintings now hang in world’s most popular museums and take the breath away of millions of viewers around the Globe.
However, he was not appreciated in his time, and committed suicide at 37 having sold just one painting in his life.
In 2004, a group of scientists using the Hubble space telescope came up with a very interesting finding. They saw that around a star there were eddies of a distant cloud of gas and dust which reminded them of Van Gogh’s painting “The Starry Night”.
This led them to think that maybe Van Gogh has solved one of the greatest mysteries in physics today: fluid turbulence.
In “The Starry Night”, Vincent Van Gogh painted the view from the window of his room just before sunrise in an asylum where he admitted himself after cutting his own ear in a psychotic episode in June 1889.
In this painting Van Gogh’s circular movements with his brush created a night sky filled with eddies of stars among swirling clouds.
Van Gogh and other Impressionists captured light in a different way than their predecessors: across swirling waters or in starlight that melts and twinkles through Milky Way of blue night sky. They noticed that our brain reacts more to light than to color, so they created this effect by luminance – the intensity of the light in the colors on the canvas.
This is because the primitive part of our brains’ visual cortex sees only light and motion, not color. This cortex blends two areas of different colors together if they have the same luminance.
Contrary, our brain’s primary sub-division sees contrasting colors, but doesn’t blend them. When these two brain interpretations happen together, the light in many works by the Impressionists look like they flicker, pulse, and radiate strangely.
This engaged scientists from England, Mexico, and Spain to study in detail the luminance in Van Gogh’s paintings. They discovered that many Van Gogh’s paintings hold distinct pattern of turbulent fluid structures resembling Kolmogorav’s equation.
They came up with this finding by first digitalizing the paintings and measuring the variation of brightness between any two pixels.
They also concluded that paintings from Van Gogh’s period of psychotic agitation are very similar to fluid turbulence, unlike paintings from his ‘calmer’ period of life. For instance, his “Self-Portrait with Pipe” shows no such correspondence.
And while it is easy to conclude that his periods of psychotic turbulence and desperation were ‘catalysts’ of his true genius in him, it is not entirely appropriate to just say that Van Gogh’s psychotic episodes solved one of physics most difficult questions.
Still, we can say that the turbulence of his mind enabled him to present the turbulence in nature. Finally, he is the first one to successfully unite his unique mind’s eye with deepest mysteries of movement, fluid, and light in a time of intense suffering and desperation.