The Peculiar Role Shadows Play in Van Gogh’s Art

Exploring Vincent’s use of light and shade

Christopher P Jones
6 min readJan 9, 2023

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The Bedroom (1889) by Vincent van Gogh. Oil on canvas. 74 × 92 cm. The Art Institute, Chicago, U.S. Image source Wikimedia Commons

Recently I noticed a surprising thing about Vincent van Gogh’s painting style: that he rarely painted deep shadows and when he did, the intention was very specific.

This realisation was made more stark to me because of the research I was doing into the Italian artist Caravaggio, for whom deep shadows were a bedrock.

Caravaggio developed an intense mode of painting that became known as “tenebrism”, from the Italian tenebroso (dark, gloomy, mysterious), a style that won him many admirers and created a new generation of “Caravaggesque” followers.

Saint Jerome in His Study (1605–6) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. 112 × 157 cm. Galleria Borghese, Rome. Image source Wikimedia Commons

For many artists, light and shadow are fundamental to expressing three-dimensional form. They also help to create atmosphere. With a painting like Caravaggio’s Saint Jerome in his study, every shape and form is in dialogue with the shadows that surround them.

Now look at the image below, The Bedroom, painted by Van Gogh in 1888. Notice how not a single object in the room casts a shadow — with perhaps the very slight exception of the picture frames on the right-hand wall.

The Bedroom (1888) by Vincent van Gogh. Oil on canvas. 74 × 92 cm. The Art Institute, Chicago, U.S. Image source Wikimedia Commons

The chairs cast no shadow, nor does the table. And there is no shade beneath the bed. Despite the presence of a window at the back of the room, it is not at all obvious where the light source that illuminates the scene is coming from. Everything has been flattened into a tableau of coloured blocks, rather like a collage of cut-out pieces.

Irises (1889) by Vincent van Gogh. Oil on canvas. 74.3 × 94.3 cm. Getty Museum, Los Angeles, U.S. Source Wikimedia Commons

Take another work from around the same time. Irises, painted in 1889, was one of a series of works Van Gogh made during his stay at the Saint Paul-de-Mausole asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.

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