Van Gogh's The Starry Night

"In the blue depths the stars were sparkling, greenish, yellow, white, pink, more brilliant, more sparklingly gemlike than at home - even in Paris."1

So wrote Vincent Van Gogh while he was in Saint-Rémy during the time when he painted his famous painting, The Starry Night.  Van Gogh created this painting, one of his most famous works of art and a favorite of mine, in June of 1889 about a month after he moved to the mental asylum in the small town of Saint-Rémy outside of Arles where he had been living.

While Van Gogh was at the asylum he painted constantly, taking his inspiration from the views out of his window and the countryside around him.  Just six months earlier he had a mental breakdown in Arles and mutilated his own ear, which was followed by a lengthy stay at a hospital. 
His time in the asylum at Saint-Rémy was an especially prolific time in his painting career and The Starry Night was influenced by the night sky as seen from his window there.

The Starry Night, Vincent Van Gogh, 1889, 29 x 36 1/4" (73.7 x 92.1 cm)
Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), New York

Art Historian Robert Rosenblum wrote of Van Gogh:

"Of the many marvels that make up Van Gogh's genius, one is his uncanny capacity to project his total visual and emotional attention into anything he painted, animate or inanimate, so that a shoe, a sunflower, a chair, a book could carry as much weight as the image of a human being."2

This statement is also true of his landscapes.  Van Gogh's night sky does seem to vibrate and swirl with its own personality and the vivid hues of the stars, sky, moon and cypresses have a near anthropomorphic quality lacking in the landscapes of the French Impressionists whose work influenced his style.

While such painters such as Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro and Alfred Sisley were interested in capturing the color and light in a landscape, Van Gogh filled his with emotional and symbolic meaning. 
In the town (which is imagined) the only building to rise above everything is the church with its steeple touching the sky.  That same form is echoed in the foreground with the shape of the cypress trees also touching the heavens.

Van Gogh trained as a preacher and spent time working in that profession in the Netherlands before he took up painting.  Is the church in this painting and the fact that the steeple rises over the hills symbolic?

 The Starry Night, pen and ink drawing, Vincent Van Gogh, 1889, 18.5 x 24.5"
Museum of Architecture, Moscow

Van Gogh loved to draw also and frequently sketched out drawings first of works he would later paint in oils.  The pen and ink drawing Van Gogh did of this painting is strikingly similar, however he did make a few alterations in his final painted work.  The moon is smaller in the painting and tilted at a slightly different angle.  The cypress is darker and the smoke which rises from chimneys in the drawing to connect the town with the sky is gone.  

Yet he managed to create the same feeling of vibrant swirling movement in his drawing and creates a work of art which is far from the quiet and serene landscape one would imagine when picturing a starry night in a small rural town.

A Wheatfield with Cypresses, Vincent Van Gogh, 1889

This landscape painting with cypresses was also painted while Van Gogh was at Saint-Rémy a few months after The Starry Night and done in September.  Van Gogh actually painted three very similar versions of this painting.  The composition seems to be a mirror image of The Starry Night, done in the daylight with the cypress trees framing the scene, rolling hills in the background and whirling clouds replacing the nighttime stars.

 La nuit étoilée (The Starry Night), Vincent Van Gogh, 1888, Musée d'Orsay, Paris

While Van Gogh's The Starry Night is a unique style of landscape painting, he included the night sky in a few of his other works.  One example is his earlier version of a starry night (shown above) painted in September 1888 while he was living in Arles.  Here he portrays the city as seen from the Rhône river and the brightest lights are those which are reflected in the water rather than the stars.

Vincent Van Gogh was known to have painted outside with candles placed in his hat so that he could see to work at night.  In a letter to his sister during the same month that he painted this view of the Rhône at night, Vincent wrote:

"Often it seems to me night is even more richly coloured than day."3

Never does this statement seems to be more true then when viewing Van Gogh's nighttime landscape paintings. 

1 Feaver, William. Van Gogh, The Masterworks. New York: Portland House. (1990) p. 41. 
2 Rosenblum, Robert and H.W. Janson. 19th-Century Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. (1984) p. 414.
3 Quote taken from the Musée d'Orsay website on the page for La nuit étoilée.

The Frescoes of Akrotiri

The Ancient city of Akrotiri on the Greek Island of Santorini (then known as Thera) can be likened to a much earlier version of Pompeii.  This Minoan city was buried in an enormous volcanic eruption that occurred on the island sometime between 1,800 and 1,500 BC.

There are a lot of unknowns about this Bronze Age civilization which was named Minoan by later historians after the mythical King Minos of Crete.  The largest Minoan settlement was found on Crete in the city of Knossos.  The earliest form of their language (known as Linear A) has not been deciphered and timelines of events are approximated.  We aren't certain what the Minoans actually called their own civilization or what their religious beliefs were.  Was there any truth to the myth of King Minos from Crete?  The later form of language (known as Linear B) has been deciphered but 99% of it was used in taking inventory of goods or for administrative purposes which doesn't tell historians much about the overall history of this fascinating civilization.

However Minoan art, including these frescoes from Akrotiri, helps to shed some light on this society that thrived in the Aegean four thousand years ago.

The Springtime Fresco, from Room Delta 2,Complex D
Akrotiri, c-1,500 BC

The Springtime fresco is the earliest work which is entirely a landscape painting that has been found in the ancient world.  This fresco covered at least three walls in the room it was found in.  As we can see the imagery is stylized and abstracted rather than being a more naturalistic representation of hills and flowers.  The landscape is painted as colorful, bright and expressive with a playful inclusion of swooping birds.  It is not known what the room that this decorated was used for or why they chose to fill the walls with landscape painting.

Minoan painting can be differentiated from the arts found in other bronze age civilizations such as Egyptian and Mesopotamian due to the subject matter.  Most Minoan fresco subjects were scenes from daily life rather than paintings created to honor Pharaohs or gods. Also the Minoans used the true wet fresco technique of painting with pigment into plaster made with limestone to seal the painting to the wall, rather than the dry fresco technique used in Egypt.

However there were also some similarities, the two frescoes below show how the Minoans also used the same "twisted perspective" seen in figurative art through the centuries in ancient civilizations.  We can find examples of this in Mesopotamian relief carving as well as Egyptian fresco.  Twisted perspective refers to the fact that the feet and legs are shown in profile, but the torso is shown frontally.  The head is also in profile, while the eye is shown frontally.

Boxing Boys Fresco, Room B1, Building B
Akrotiri, c-2,000-1,800 BC

Young Fisherman Fresco
Room 5,                                                        
West House, Akrotiri, c-1,500 BC 

The above two figurative frescos are also good depictions of daily activities that were common in Akrotiri.  Apparently Minoans shaved their head but for some long locks, the shaved head is shown as blue and the long locks as black. Another similarity to Egyptian art is how men were depicted as having darker tan skin and women were shown having pale skin.

As the Minoan civilization was centered on the Aegean islands there is a wealth of marine life imagery shown in their art, such as the fish in the Young Fisherman Fresco and the swimming dolphins shown below in the Flotilla Fresco.  Vases were painted with octopi and on the main island of Crete there were fish and dolphins painted in the Palace of Knossos. 

The Flotilla Fresco, from one wall in Room 5, West House,
Akrotiri, c-1,500 BC

The enormous fresco known as The Flotilla Fresco from room 5 of the West House gives the modern viewer a more detailed look at daily life in this culture.  This fresco wrapped around three sides of a room, it is approximately 39 feet (12 m) long and yet only 17 inches high (43 cm) in a frieze like style.  

Ships are shown sailing from one island to the next while people wait for them in the towns, deer are chased in the hills and dolphins swim in the sea.  Is this too a panoramic scene of daily life?  Or instead the retelling of a historic even or mythic story?

Detail of The Flotilla Fresco, from Room 5,
West House, Akrotiri, c-1,500 BC

What seems apparent from this fresco, the ruins at Akrotiri and some small faience plaques found at the site is that the Minoans were building multilevel residential structures complete with exterior windows.  These dwellings were quite sophisticated and architecture such as this wasn't found elsewhere in the Bronze Age.

These are just a small sampling of the many remains of Minoan frescoes, due to the volcanic eruption at Akrotiri this site has kept a high concentration of these paintings intact.

Suggested reading for more information on the Minoan civilization
The Aegean Bronze Age. Oliver Dickinson. Camridge University Press: Cambridge, 1994.
The Arts in Prehistoric Greece. Sinclair Hood. Penguin Books: London, 1978.