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Van Gogh Ate Yellow Paint

Gracelyn Eve Mitchell

Van Gogh ate yellow paint, historians say. To bring him happiness. 

I think of the mixture of cadmium and ochre and hawthorne swirling in his stomach like recreating Starry Night. 

Desperation and mental illness have turned into toxicity. Others will try to paint this cry for help as poetic, but I refuse to romanticize suffering. A severed ear and suicide only make for a tragic story of a misunderstood artist pleading for acceptance. But I wonder what made him reach for the yellow paint opposed to the rest. And I think evidence found in the world can attest that yellow is the “happy color. I imagine a pallet smeared with layers of thick oil and acrylic paints. Between the muted blues and greens and the gradients of brown and gray, Van Gogh’s hand must have found its way to that juxtaposing brightness. 

Juxtaposing brightness. The kind that outweighs the tragedy and the grief and the loneliness, the isolation and the white-and-gray damage of the soul that is so deep it feels like color has to be infused into it. 

Juxtaposing brightness. The kind you crave when everything is submerged, and everything you know is gone. The university grades have sunk, the funds have dissipated, your ambition is underwater, you are drowning in new diagnoses and new fears, the friends you had must have been engulfed by the tide. The Xanax and Prozac sink in your stomach like the paint Van Gogh ate, and it feels like his “medicine” is just as useful as yours sometimes. 

Juxtaposing brightness. The kind you yearn for when you are slumped against the bathroom wall at a party, and no one knows, or when you are lying on the floor of your dark bedroom a quarter past midnight when everyone is asleep. The kind you look for when darkness is coming at all angles, trying to consume you. The kind that simply adds contrasting brightness to the canvas of your life. It’s so tantalizing, so contrasting. It gleams over the depressing landscape; you can’t help but grovel towards it. Like gold water in a black desert. 

I know why Van Gogh gravitated towards the yellow, grasped it, and squeezed it past his parted lips. It’s so bright it feels like it can put brightness in you. A lot of things do that. A lot of things are yellow or promise yellow. Like reaching out to “friends, like writing, like plants and open windows and cool breezes, like yoga and breathing exercises, like just “being happy, like the prescribed pills, like the “drinking more water” and “smiling more.

I won’t say I condone Van Gogh, or that I find what he did poetic. I don’t, and it’s not. But what I will say is that he was misunderstood in his suffering. And I understand. 

I’ve eaten yellow too.