“I saw a stable with four coffee-colored cows…the stable bluish-white…and a great green curtain in the doorway…I saw another very quiet and lovely thing the other day, a girl with coffee-tinted skin…ash-blonde hair, gray eyes, a print bodice of pale pink…against the emerald leaves of some fig trees”--Vincent van Gogh
When Vincent van Gogh traveled to Paris and encountered Impressionist art for the first time, he said he felt the power of color “awaken” within him. It was as if he had never seen colors before, as if he had never truly noticed colors in the natural world until he saw the intensity with which the Parisian artists captured them on canvas. The awakening dramatically changed van Gogh’s art. It is easy to divide his paintings into those that came before the Paris summer of 1886 and those that came after. There’s a Wizard of Oz kind of threshold moment that separates the two periods. A door opened and he went from painting coal miners in dimly-lit, sepia-toned rooms to painting blossoming plum trees and powder blue skies.
Nora is also awakening to colors. Has she discovered them on her own or are we teaching them to her? I’m not sure. All I know is that somewhere in her wanderings, she has noticed that a thing can be a thing and simultaneously a member of a certain category of things known as blue or red or yellow or pink. We had a false start a few weeks ago when she excitedly pointed to a group of blue circles in a book and exclaimed “boo!” over and over as she pointed to each one. Only when she used the same word on red circles and purple circles did I realize she thought they were all balloons. But today, she tells me that her shoes are a “boo” and Gabie’s sweatshirt is a “boo” and the sippy cup I have handed her is a “boo” as well. These things are all blue and are not round and do not contain helium so I think she’s got the right idea.
Do the awareness of color and the language to describe it come together? Is Nora just discovering that things are “boo” or is she simply finally gaining the word to let us know what she already knows? Did Vincent appreciate vibrant colors—the coffee-colored cows and emerald-green trees that he describes in a letter to his brother—before he had the means, the new pigments and the desire to paint them?
Gabie has left his box of Crayola 64’s on the table. I pull out my favorite color in the box: periwinkle blue. Call me unoriginal; I’ve learned from Crayola’s website that periwinkle is #7 on their list of the 50 most-popular shades of crayon. It’s just a great color. I wear it whenever I can. I would dream in periwinkle if possible. In Vincent’s painting of the drawbridge, there’s a tiny patch of periwinkle in the sky over the bridge—in the right-hand corner, just above the little white building—where light blue blends for just a moment with a touch of lavender. But Vincent would never have used the term periwinkle (or even its equivalent in French whatever that is). The word was only first used to describe a color in 1949—more than 50 years after Vincent’s death. So what did he call it? Did he have a special term for the new shade as he created it, blended it on the palette or discovered it on the canvas? Or was it just a variation of blue—or boo? I suspect he noticed it. And if he didn’t give it a name, at least he saw it and he liked it and he left it there for me to find.