The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh is one of the world's most well-known and beloved works of art.
Seductive swirls, intoxicating composition, and enchanting color palette eventually brought this canvas a great success. However, it was not an easy road. And there is much more to this oil painting than you probably have heard.
Executed at the peak of the artist’s powers
Vincent van Gogh painted The Starry Night in late June or early July of 1889, a year before his suicide on the wheat fields of Auvers-sur-Oise aged 37. It was the most productive period in his artistic career (1885-1890) that produced a collection of art works reflecting personal vision of the artist and representing his distinctive style full of broad brushstrokes, inventive perspectives, colors, patterns and designs.
Three years prior to The Starry Night, in 1886, Vincent van Gogh moved to Paris after his academic classes in Antwerp and discovered Montmartre. He encountered Impressionists, Neo-Impressionists, and the famous Pointillist George Seurat. He was deeply inspired by these artists’ harmonious matching of colors, short brushstrokes, and liberal use of paint. They intensely influenced van Gogh style: he has brightened his own palette and loosened his brushwork, emphasizing the physical application of paint on canvas.
The style Vincent developed in Paris and practiced henceforth, was titled as Post-Impressionism, a term referred to art works made by artists interested in expressing their emotional and psychological responses to the world through bold colors and expressive, often symbolic images.
By 1888, Vincent van Gogh had returned to the French countryside to escape Parisian urban pressure and remained in the provence until his death. There, once agin close to the peasants who had inspired him while he was living in the Netherlands, he concentrated on painting the landscapes, self-portraits, portraits of other people, domestic interiors, and still lifes full of personal symbolism.
A long-cherished idea
Vincent van Gogh conceived of his plan to make a nocturnal landscape long before he actually executed The Starry Night. Prior to it, in 1888, he has already made two canvases featuring starlit skies: The Starry Night Over the Rhône
and The Café Terrace At Night
. But these paintings showed night as a catchy background rather than made it a protagonist.
Vincent kept the subject of a dark blue night sky dotted with the twinkling yellow stars in his mind for many months since he came to Arles. By executing it, he wished to meet new technical challenges—namely to use contrasting colors and to fulfill a complicated task of painting en plein air (outdoors) at night. He repeatedly wrote about his intention in letters to family and friends as of a promising yet problematic theme. “A starry sky, for example, well – it’s a thing that I’d like to try to do, but how to arrive at that unless I decide to work at home and from the imagination?
”- the artist shared his hesitancy with the painter Emile Bernard in the spring of 1888.
It should be noted here that Vincent Van Gogh often worked en plein air or painted from prints and illustrations. So, the idea of painting an invented scene from imagination was a challenging one to him. His preceding nocturne The Starry Night over the Rhône the artist executed outdoors with help of a gas lamplight. And we see the sky and the river, and the small city of Arles at night just as they are in reality. The Starry Night, though, is a re-working image of a night sky and the landscape of Saint-Rémy beneath it.
Art historians claim that when Vincent van Gogh worked on this oil painting, he looked at the nature, grasped its mood, and then reassembled it at his will, depriving of reality yet supplying with his personal emotions. Why so? The story is closely related to the place where the picture was made and to mental condition of the artist at the time.
The Starry Night depicts Van Gogh’s view from the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, an asylum and a clinic for the mentally ill near the village of Saint-Rémy. Vincent was hospitalized here in May 1889 after experiencing a mental breakdown in the winter of 1888. During the infamous seizure, he dramatically ended up his collaboration with a close friend and painter Paul Gauguin
and mutilated part of his own ear.
To respite from emotional suffering Vincent was encouraged to make art in the asylum. He was given special rights to occupy two rooms: a bedroom on the second floor and a room on the ground floor as a painting studio. So, the sweeping view of the Alpine mountain range from his bedroom window composed the basis for The Starry Night. However, van Gogh wouldn't have been able to see Saint-Rémy from his bedroom window, and art historians assume that he used elements of a few previously completed works still stored in his studio as well as aspects from imagination and memory. Some scholars think that the village on canvas is pulled from one of van Gogh's charcoal sketches of the French town others hold that it was actually inspired by his homeland, the Netherlands. It has even been argued that the church’s spire in the village is somehow more Dutch in character and must have been painted as an amalgamation of several different church spires from his homeland.
Anyways, even if those who claim that the canvas was created largely if not exclusively in the studio at the ground floor are right, the artist was at least inspired by the view out of his bedroom window:"This morning I saw the country from my window a long time before sunrise, with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big
The Starry Night attests to the author’s profound interest in the night sky. It evidences his extended observations of the landscape and the star-filled night firmament with curiosity and attenteviness of an astronomer. This was only made possible after leaving Paris, where gas and electric city street lights were increasingly in use by the late nineteenth century. In rural areas of southern France Van Gogh was able to spend hours contemplating stars without their interference.
In his letter to Theo, Vincent wrote that the stars always made him dream and in those dreams he saw them “in as simple a way as the black spots on the map, representing towns and villages
” as places for dwelling after death. He continued: “Why, I say to myself, should the spots of light in the firmament be less accessible to us than the black spots on the map of France? Just as we take the train to go to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to go to a star. What’s certainly true in this argument is that while alive, we cannot go to a star, any more than once dead we’d be able to take the train. So it seems to me not impossible that cholera, the stone, consumption, cancer are celestial means of locomotion, just as steamboats, omnibuses and the railway are terrestrial ones. To die peacefully of old age would be to go there on foot.
Who knows, maybe when Van Gogh has been looking up on a starry sky and painting his iconic work he looked for the place to move to in a year? And his suicide was another kind of “a celestial means of locomotion” to get there…
Vincent van Gogh has always paid much attention to color. In a letter to his sister Willemien, discussing with her the mind and temperament of artists, he wrote that he was “very sensitive to color and its particular language, its effects of complementaries, contrasts, harmony.”
A starry night’s palette amazed him deeply. In another letter to Weillemien he spoke about its colors: “It often seems to me that the night is even more richly colored than the day, colored with the most intense violets, blues and greens. If you look carefully, you’ll see that some stars are lemony, others have a pink, green, forget-me-not blue glow. And without labouring the point, it’s clear to paint a starry sky it’s not nearly enough to put white spots on blue-black.”
Van Gogh followed his own advice, and showed in his Starry Night a wide variety of colors he perceived on clear nights.
A night sky filled with a moon and the stars acts as a protagonist in this original painting. It takes up three-quarters of the picture plane and draws all our attention to its turbulent, even agitated state with help of intensely swirling patterns rolling across its surface like waves. Among the many bright orbs there are two appartent accents in the sky—the crescent moon to the far right, and Venus, the morning star, to the left of center—surrounded by concentric circles of radiant white and yellow light.
The composition is very expressive and well-balanced at the same time. Countless short signature brushstrokes and thickly applied paint set the surface of the oil painting in a roiling motion. However, the ordered placement of the cypress, a steeple, and the central nebulae structures the composition and equalizes it. Such a combination of visual contrasts makes the accent on the juxtaposition of an active cosmos night life to a restful earthly sleep. Van Gogh was much more interested in the night and found more beauty in it than in a hustle-bustle day. For him, it was “much more alive and richly colored than the day.”
Vincent Van Gogh regarded The Starry Night to be an exercise in deliberate stylization. He wrote his brother Theo: “These are exaggerations from the point of view of arrangement, their lines are contorted like those of ancient woodcuts”. So, Van Gogh’s style in here was inspired in part by medieval woodcuts, with their thick outlines and simplified forms, and is quite similar to the artistic manner of his friends Bernard and Gauguin.
Matching to astronomical data
In 1985, an art historian Albert Boime compared The Starry Night to a planetarium recreation of the night sky in Provence in the summer of 1889. The similarities were striking, and proved that the brightest “morning star”, placed right of the cypress tree, is actually the planet Venus. Researchers have determined that it was indeed visible at dawn at the time.
Van Gogh’s stylized moon, however, is astronomically incorrect. The records indicate that the moon actually was waning gibbous, not waning crescent, as he depicted it.
The whirling forms in the sky, on the other hand, match published astronomical observations of clouds of dust and gas known as nebulae.
Mark on art history
Mentioned briefly by Vincent in his letter to Theo as a simple “study of night” or ”night effect,” The Starry Night is highly appreciated by modern art critics for its rich mixture of invention, remembrance, and observation. Its unique composition combined with simplified forms, thick impasto, and boldly contrasting colors, made the work compelling to subsequent generations of viewers as well as to other artists.
Inspiring and encouraging others is precisely what Vincent van Gogh sought to achieve with his night scenes. The Starry Night became a foundational image for Expressionism as well as perhaps the most famous painting in the artist’s oeuvre.