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Vincent Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night”

Knowing a Van Gogh painting when you see it is one thing, but understanding it is quite another.

In order to truly see and appreciate a van Gogh piece such as “The Starry Night,” you have to be able to look at it with a fresh eye (not an easy task for something you’ve probably seen seen 100 times before). Can you forget about the famous artist behind it and the stories you’ve heard about his life? Can you forget that you’re looking at a work of art that’s valued at well over $10 million? Can you forget that you’re viewing  one of the most famous paintings in the world?

Take all that away, and “The Starry Night” is a simple, small oil painting, 29 in. by 36 in. It portrays a landscape consisting of a village tucked in among some hills, a night sky with stars and an exaggerated crescent moon, and a tall tree. There is no activity, no people, and no animals. Described like this, you would hardly think the picture was worth a second look. So what makes it so special?

In a nutshell, the most extraordinary feature of “The Starry Night” is not what was painted, but how it was painted. Van Gogh has divided the picture so that all the activity and interest is focused in the upper two-thirds of the piece. There, in the night sky, the paint is so thick that it sits like a crust on the canvas, manipulated into strange and unnatural shapes. If you let your imagination go, you can begin to imagine all sorts of possibilities and explanations in those swirls. This is a painting meant to conjure images and emotions in the viewer, not the artist’s definite representative of them.  


Vincent Willem van Gogh (1853-1890) was originally from Holland, but spent much of his young adult life traveling around Europe, jumping from one unsuccessful career path to the next. It was not until he was 27 years old that he decided to become a painter. He studied art at various academies for nearly a decade and although he was incredibly prolific, he only sold one painting during his lifetime.

By the late 1880s, van Gogh’s mental health began a steep decline. On Christmas Eve 1888, with a razor, he famously cut off part of his own ear. His devoted brother, Theo, tried to take responsibility for Vincent, but the frequency of his mental breakdowns required more serious attention. The painter was voluntarily admitted to a St. Rémy mental asylum near Arles in the south of France. In was here, in June 1889, that van Gogh painted “The Starry Night.”

In May 1890, van Gogh left St. Rémy and moved to Auvers-sur-Oise (just north of Paris), where he could be near Theo. There, he experienced a final surge of creativity during which he completed an astounding 70 paintings in roughly 70 days. But soon thereafter, van Gogh succumbed to his depression, shooting himself in the chest with a pistol. Mortally wounded, he died two days later in the arms of his brother (who himself never recovered from the stress, passing away six months later).


Van Gogh’s work had a distinct purpose. His career attempts, including art dealing and the church, ended in disaster, as did his relationships with other people. So when he took up painting, it offered him an outlet for his tormented energy and his desire to succeed at something. He longed to communicate, but he didn’t seek to impose his troubles and unhappiness on others. Rather, he wanted his art to be a consolation for the stresses and strains of modern life, something that people could relax with, and through which they could move out of themselves into a better and happier existence.

Although he considered himself a failure in his own lifetime, he nonetheless fulfilled his mission beyond his deepest hopes. Van Gogh’s influence and legacy have been enormous. He showed people that painting could be an intensely expressive activity. Color, paint, and simple subjects, handled with boldness, directness, and uncompromising honesty, could express the artist’s deepest emotions and communicate them with equal forthrightness to others. Van Gogh proved that art didn’t have to have an elaborate theoretical and intellectual framework to convey a profound message. That may sound obvious now, but at the time it was a revolutionary idea. In fact, fellow artistic legends Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse owned works by van Gogh in order to learn from his example.


One of van Gogh’s trademarks in this painting is that he uses color and shapes symbolically rather than as an exact transcriptions of visible things. He described this best himself when he said, “Instead of trying to reproduce what I see before me, I use color in a completely arbitrary way to express myself powerfully.” Note that van Gogh uses an ample amount of yellow paint in this portrait of nighttime. Generally, yellow is symbolic of sunlight and happiness, but he employs it here to express the stillness of evening. “It often seems to me,” van Gogh once said, “that the night is still more richly colored than the day, having hues of the most intense violets, blues, and greens.”


Although van Gogh didn’t belong to any specific art movement, he was greatly influenced by Impressionism and Japanese woodblock prints. He was also heavily influenced by English literature, particularly the novels of Charles Dickens. He liked the way Dickens endowed inanimate objects with human personalities, which is a distinct quality you can see in paintings such as “The Yellow Chair” and “The Bedroom at Arles.” He also enjoyed the poetry of Walt Whitman, which was what he was reading at the time he was planning “The Starry Night.” Whitman’s poem "From Noon to Starry Night" was published in France in 1888, and Whitman’s “Song of Myself” contains references to night, stars, and the moon that parallel the imagery in van Gogh’s “The Starry Night.”


(Image credit: Flickr user Justin Holton)

Notice that the paint is thick, and the brush strokes are very obvious. You don’t have to be a painter to figure out that this small picture was developed very rapidly, and the paints were squeezed directly from their tubes. This is the work of a man who is in a hurry, but also a man who is absolutely certain of what he is doing. He loves the subject of his piece and the activity of putting paint onto the canvas and moving it around.


For all its simplicity, “The Starry Night” actually grows and improves with acquaintance, which is a rare quality found only in the greatest works of art. With most paintings, the longer you look, the more you become aware of defects and limitations. But not here. Van Gogh intentionally creates conflicting emotions within the piece. The bright, pure colors and energetic brushstrokes bring to mind cheerfulness and optimism. But the lack of any living creature and the sense of silence depict a sense of loneliness and melancholy.


The above article by Robert Cumming is reprinted with permission from the November-December 2004 issue of mental_floss magazine.

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