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Vincent Van Gogh and the Starry Night

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The Starry Night is an oil painting by the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh. Painted in June 1889, it describes the view from the east-facing window of his asylum room at St. Remy de Provence, just before sunrise with the addition of an ideal village. The Starry Night is one of the most recognized paintings in the history of Western culture.

In the aftermath of the breakdown on the 23rd of December in 1888 that resulted in the self-mutilation of his left ear, Van Gogh voluntarily admitted himself to the St. Paul the Mausole Lunatic asylum on the 8th of May 1889. During this period he painted some of the most well-known paintings. The Starry Night was painted around the 18th of June.

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Largely self-taught, Van Gogh produced more than over 2,000 oil paintings, watercolors, drawings, and sketches. He also wrote a lot of letters, mainly to his younger brother Theo who supported him, in the letters he told his brother about his art and his thoughts. “Always continue walking a lot and loving nature, for that’s the real way to learn to understand art better and better,” he wrote in 1874. “Painters understand nature and love it, and teach us to see”. (Vincent Van Gogh, 1914).

The views depicted within The Starry Night are shown to have been the view from his bedroom window where he painted The Starry Night. He wrote to his brother Theo around 23rd of May 1889. “I can see an enclosed square of wheat. Above which, in the morning I watched the sunrise in all its glory” (Vincent Van Gogh, 1914)Van Gogh admired the view and made works of art depicting it at different times of the day and under various weather conditions. The brightest star in the painting just to the right of the cypress tree was determined by researchers to have been Venus and it was indeed visible at dawn in Provence in the spring of 1889.

Despite a large number of letters Van Gogh wrote he said barely anything about The Starry Night. In a letter to painter Emily Bernard from late November 1889, Van Gogh refers to the painting as a failure. Van Gogh argued with Bernard and especially Paul Gaugin as to whether one should paint from nature as Van Gogh preferred or what cold abstraction paintings conceived in the imagination. In the letter to Bernard, Van Gogh recounted his experience when he lived with Bernard for 9 weeks in the fall and winter of 1888 when Gogh was in Arles writing, “I once or twice allowed myself to be led straight into abstractions as you know but that was delusion dear friend and one soon comes up against a brick wall and yes once again I allowed myself to be led astray into reaching for stars that are too big another failure I have had my fill of ash”. (Vincent Van Gogh, 1914). Van Gogh is referring to the expressionist swirls which dominate the upper central portions of The Starry Night. Theo refers to these pictorial elements in a letter to Vincent dated 22nd of October 1888 “I clearly sense what preoccupied you in the new canvases like the village in the Moonlight or the mountains but I feel that the search for style takes away the real sentiment of things”. (Vincent Van Gogh, 1914).

Although Van Gogh defended the practices of Gauguin and Bernard for some time, each time he inevitably gave up and continued with his own series. The Nocturne series was limited by the difficulties posed by painting scenes from nature while the darkness of night covered the scene. The first painting in the series was Café Terrace At Night painted in Arles in early September 1888 followed by The Starry Night Over the Rhône which was done later that month. The statements concerning these paintings provide further insight into his intentions for painting night studies in general and The Starry Night in particular. Soon after his arrival in Ireland in February 1888, Van Gogh wrote to Theo “I need a starry night with cypresses or perhaps above a field of ripe wheat where there are some really beautiful nights here”. (Vincent Van Gogh, 1914)That same week he wrote to Bernard, “A starry night is something I should like to try to do just as in the daytime I’m going to try to paint a Green Meadow Spangled with dandelions. You can pair with the Stars two dots on a map and music that has one takes a train to travel on to earth we take death to reach a star”.(Vincent Van Gogh, 1914). This quote shows that he epiphany for elements that are shown within The Starry Night.

At this point in Van Gogh’s life, it seemed that the artist was disillusioned by religion and he appeared not to have lost his belief in an afterlife. He voiced his thoughts to his brother Theo in a letter after painting The Starry Night over the phone confessing to a “tremendous need for shall I say for religion so I go outside at night to paint the stars”. (Vincent Van Gogh, 1914)He wrote about existing in another dimension after death and associating this dimension with the night sky. “It would be so simple and would account when one dies”. “Hope is in the Stars,” (Vincent Van Gogh, 1914)he wrote but was quick to point out that the Earth is a Planet too and is consequently a star or a celestial orb. Noted art historian Meyer Schapiro highlights the expressionistic aspects of The Starry Night saying it was created under the “pressure of feeling” and that it is out “visionary inspired by religious mood”.(Vincent Van Gogh, 1914).

Art historian Sven Lövgren expands on Schapiro’s approach again, calling The Starry Night a visionary painting that was conceived in a state of great agitation. He writes about a hallucinatory character of the painting and its aggressive expression form. Lövgren notes that the painting was not executed during one of Van Gogh’s incapacitating breakdowns. Lövgren compares Van Gogh’s “Religiously-inclined longing for the beyond” to the poetry of Walt Whitman because of The Starry Night. The painting is an expressive picture that symbolizes the final absorption of the artist by the cosmos.

Lövgren praises the eloquent capitation of the painting as an apocalyptic vision and advances his own symbolist Theory with reference to the 11th stars in one of Joseph’s dreams in the Old Testament book of Genesis. Lövgren asserts that the pictorial elements of The Starry Night “are visualized imperial Backbase in purely symbolic terms”(Lovegren,1971) and notes that Cyprus is the Tree of death in Mediterranean countries. “Gives a never-to-be-forgotten sensation of standing on the threshold of eternity”. (Lovegren,1971).

Harvard astronomer Charles A. Whitney conducted his own astronomical study of The Starry Night. Whitney theorizes that the swirls in the sky could represent wind evoking, the Mistral that had such a profound effect on Van Gogh during the 27 months he spent in Provence. One week after painting The Starry Night he wrote to his brother Theo, “The cypresses are always occupying my thoughts. I should like to make something of them like the canvases of the sunflowers because it is it’s done cheers me that they have not yet been done as I see them”. Within the same letter, he mentions two studies of Cyprus of that difficult shade of bottle green. These statements suggest that Van Gogh was interested in the trees for their formal qualities rather than for the symbolic connotation. Schapiro refers to Cyprus in painting as a “vague symbol of a human being striving”. Lövgren reminds the reader that the Cypress of the tree of death in the Mediterranean countries. Van Gogh biographers Stephen Naifeh and Gregory Whitesmith concur saying that Van Gogh “telescoped”(Stephen Naifeh and Gregory Whitesmith, 1994) the pictures of the view from his window. However, it is by no means certain that Van Gogh was using “arrangement”(Stephen Naifeh and Gregory Whitesmith, 1994) as a synonym for “composition” (Stephen Naifeh and Gregory Whitesmith, 1994). Van Gogh was, in fact, speaking of three paintings, one of which was The Starry Night when he made this comment, “The olive trees with the white cloud and the background of mountains as well as the moonrise and the night effect,” (Vincent Van Gogh, 1989) as he called it.

When Van Gogh called The Starry Night a failure for being an “abstraction,” he places the blame on his having painted “stars that were too big”. While stopping short of calling the painting a hallucinatory vision. Naief and Smith discuss The Starry Night in the context of Van Gogh’s mental illness which they later identify as temporal lobe epilepsy or latent epilepsy. At the time seizures would have been regarded as delusions and would have been isolated due to this, the painting would have helped him cope with his loneliness at the time. That day in mid-June in a state of heightened reality with all other elements of the painting in place, Van Gogh threw himself into the painting of the stars producing night sky unlike any other the world has ever seen with ordinary eyes.

Van Gogh attached an emotional language to the night and the nature that took them far from their actual appearances. The painting is dominated by vivid blues and yellows that are applied with a very unique brushstroke that can be recognized nowadays as Van Gogh’s painting style. The Starry Night also presents how inseparable Van Gogh’s vision was from his reality. The continuously evolving brushstrokes that he had devised, in which color and paint describe a world outside the artwork even as they telegraph their own status as merely color and paint.

By 1888, Van Gogh had returned to the French countryside, where he would remain until his death. There, close once again to the peasants who had inspired him early on in his career, he concentrated on painting landscapes, portraits, domestic interiors, and still lifes full of personal symbolism. He later died on the 29th of July, 1890 after committing suicide at the age of thirty-seven.

The Starry Night is based on Van Gogh’s direct observations as well as his imagination and emotions. The steeple of the church, for example, resembles those common in Holland at that time. The whirling forms in the sky match a published astronomical observation of clouds of dust and gas known as nebulae. Once balanced and expressive, the composition is structured by his ordered placement of the cypress, steeple, and central nebulae, while his countless short brushstrokes and thickly applied paint set its surface in rolling motion. Such a combination of visual contrasts was generated by an artist who found beauty and interest in the night, which, for him, was “much more alive and richly colored than the day”. (Museum of Modern Art, Vincent Van Gogh, 1914).

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