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.

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