The Starry Night
|Artist||Vincent van Gogh|
|Type||Oil on canvas|
|Dimensions||73.7 cm × 92.1 cm (29 in × 36 1⁄4 in)|
|Location||Museum of Modern Art, New York City|
The Starry Night is an oil on canvas by the Dutch post-impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh. Painted in June, 1889, it depicts the view (with the notable addition of an idealized village) from the east-facing window of his asylum room at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, just before sunrise. It has been in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City since 1941, acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest. It is Van Gogh's best-known painting and one of the most recognized monuments in the history of Western culture.
In the aftermath of the December 23, 1888, breakdown that resulted in the self-mutilation of his left ear, Van Gogh voluntarily admitted himself to the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole lunatic asylum on 8 May 1889. Housed in a former monastery, Saint-Paul-de-Mausole catered to the wealthy and was less than half full when Van Gogh arrived, allowing him to occupy not only a second-story bedroom but also a ground-floor room for use as a painting studio.
During the year Van Gogh stayed at the asylum, the heavy output of paintings he had begun in Arles continued. During this period, he produced some of the best-known works of his career, including the Irises from May, 1889, now in the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the blue self-portrait from September, 1889, in the Musée d'Orsay. The Starry Night was painted between 16 and 18 June 1889.
Although The Starry Night was painted during the day in Van Gogh's ground-floor studio, it would be inaccurate to state that the picture was painted from memory. The view has been identified as the one from his bedroom window, facing east, a view which Van Gogh painted variations of no fewer than twenty-one times, including The Starry Night. "Through the iron-barred window," he wrote to his brother, Theo, around 23 May 1889, "I can see an enclosed square of wheat . . . above which, in the morning, I watch the sun rise in all its glory."
Van Gogh depicted the view at different times of day and under various weather conditions, including sunrise, moonrise, sunshine-filled days, overcast days, windy days, and one day with rain. The hospital staff did not allow Van Gogh to paint in his bedroom, but he was able to make sketches in ink or charcoal on paper, and eventually he would base newer variations on previous versions. The pictorial element uniting all of these paintings is the diagonal line coming in from the right depicting the low rolling hills of the Alpilles mountains. In fifteen of the twenty-one versions, cypress trees are visible beyond the far wall enclosing the wheat field. Van Gogh telescoped the view in six of these paintings, most notably in Wheat Field with Cypresses and The Starry Night, bringing the trees closer to the picture plane.
One of the first paintings of the view was Mountainous Landscape Behind Saint-Rémy, now in Copenhagen, which Van Gogh identified in a letter to his sister Wil from 16 June 1889 as hanging in his studio to dry. Two days later, he wrote to his brother that he had painted "a starry sky." The Starry Night is the only nocturne painting in the series of views from his bedroom window. In early June Vincent wrote to Theo, "This morning I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big." Two scholars working independently of each other have determined that Venus was indeed visible in Provence in the spring of 1889. So the brightest "star" in the painting, just to the viewer's right of the cypress tree, is actually Venus.
The moon is stylized, as astronomical records indicate that the moon was waning gibbous at the time Van Gogh painted the picture. Even if the phase of the moon had been a waning crescent at the time, Van Gogh's moon is not astronomically correct. (For other interpretations of the moon, see below.) The one pictorial element that was definitely not visible from Van Gogh's cell is the village, which is based on a sketch made from a hillside above the village of Saint-Rémy.
Even given the large number of letters Van Gogh wrote, he said very little about The Starry Night. After reporting that he had painted a starry sky in June, Van Gogh next mentioned the painting in a letter to Theo on or about 20 September 1889, when he included it in a list of paintings he was sending to his brother in Paris, referring to it as a "night study." Of this list of paintings, he wrote, "All in all the only things I consider a little good in it are the Wheatfield, the Mountain, the Orchard, the Olive trees with the blue hills and the Portrait and the Entrance to the quarry, and the rest says nothing to me"; "the rest" would include The Starry Night. When he decided to hold back three paintings from this batch in order to save money on postage, The Starry Night was one of the paintings he didn't send. Finally, in a letter to painter Émile Bernard from late November, 1889, Van Gogh referred to the painting as a "failure."
Van Gogh argued with Bernard and, especially, Paul Gauguin as to whether one should paint from nature, as Van Gogh preferred, or paint what Gauguin called "abstractions": paintings conceived in the imagination, or de tête. In the letter to Bernard, Van Gogh recounted his experiences when Gauguin lived with him for nine weeks in the fall and winter of 1888: "When Gauguin was in Arles, I once or twice allowed myself to be led astray into abstraction, as you know. . . . But that was delusion, dear friend, and one soon comes up against a brick wall. . . . And yet, once again I allowed myself to be led astray into reaching for stars that are too big—another failure—and I have had my fill of that." Van Gogh here is referring to the expressionistic swirls which dominate the upper center portion of The Starry Night.
Theo referred to these pictorial elements in a letter to Vincent dated 22 October 1889: "I clearly sense what preoccupies you in the new canvases like the village in the moonlight [The Starry Night] or the mountains, but I feel that the search for style takes away the real sentiment of things." Vincent responded in early November, "Despite what you say in your previous letter, that the search for style often harms other qualities, the fact is that I feel myself greatly driven to seek style, if you like, but I mean by that a more manly and more deliberate drawing. If that will make me more like Bernard or Gauguin, I can't do anything about it. But am inclined to believe that in the long run you'd get used to it." And later in the same letter, he wrote, "I know very well that the studies drawn with long, sinuous lines from the last consignment weren't what they ought to become, however I dare urge you to believe that in landscapes one will continue to mass things by means of a drawing style that seeks to express the entanglement of the masses."
But although Van Gogh periodically defended the practices of Gauguin and Bernard, each time he inevitably repudiated them and continued with his preferred method of painting from nature. Like the impressionists he had met in Paris, especially Claude Monet, Van Gogh also favored working in series. He had painted his series of sunflowers in Arles, and he painted the series of cypresses and wheat fields at Saint-Rémy. The Starry Night belongs to this latter series, as well as to a small series of nocturnes he initiated in Arles.
The nocturne series was limited by the difficulties posed by painting such scenes from nature, i.e., at night. The first painting in the series was Café Terrace at Night, painted in Arles in early September, 1888, followed by Starry Night Over the Rhone later that same month. Van Gogh's written 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 Arles in February, 1888, Van Gogh wrote to Theo, "I . . . need a starry night with cypresses or—perhaps above a field of ripe wheat; there are some really beautiful nights here." That same week, he wrote to Bernard, "A starry sky is something I should like to try to do, just as in the daytime I am going to try to paint a green meadow spangled with dandelions." He compared the stars to dots on a map and mused that, as one takes a train to travel on earth, "we take death to reach a star." Although at this point in his life Van Gogh was disillusioned by religion, he appears not to have lost his belief in an afterlife. He voiced this ambivalence in a letter to Theo after having painted Starry Night Over the Rhone, confessing to a "tremendous need for, shall I say the word—for religion—so I go outside at night to paint the stars."
He wrote about existing in another dimension after death and associated this dimension with the night sky. "It would be so simple and would account so much for the terrible things in life, which now amaze and wound us so, if life had yet another hemisphere, invisible it is true, but where one lands when one dies." "Hope is in the stars," he wrote, but he was quick to point out that "earth is a planet too, and consequently a star, or celestial orb." And he stated flatly that The Starry Night was "not a return to the romantic or to religious ideas."
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 a "visionary [painting] inspired by a religious mood." Schapiro theorizes that the "hidden content" of the work makes reference to the New Testament book of Revelation, revealing an "apocalyptic theme of the woman in pain of birth, girded with the sun and moon and crowned with stars, whose newborn child is threatened by the dragon." (Schapiro, in the same volume, also professes to see an image of a mother and child in the clouds in Landscape with Olive Trees, painted at the same time and often regarded as a pendant to The Starry Night.)
Art historian Sven Loevgren expands on Schapiro's approach, again calling The Starry Night a "visionary painting" which "was conceived in a state of great agitation." He writes of the "hallucinatory character of the painting and its violently expressive form," although he takes pains to note that the painting was not executed during one of Van Gogh's incapacitating breakdowns. Loevgren compares Van Gogh's "religiously inclined longing for the beyond" to the poetry of Walt Whitman. He calls The Starry Night "an infinitely expressive picture which symbolizes the final absorption of the artist by the cosmos" and which "gives a never-to-be-forgotten sensation of standing on the threshold of eternity." Loevgren praises Schapiro's "eloquent interpretation" of the painting as an apocalyptic vision and advances his own symbolist theory with reference to the eleven stars in one of Joseph's dreams in the Old Testament book of Genesis. Loevgren asserts that the pictorial elements of The Starry Night "are visualized in purely symbolic terms" and notes that "the cypress is the tree of death in the Mediterranean countries."
Art historian Lauren Soth also finds a symbolist subtext in The Starry Night, saying that the painting is a "traditional religious subject in disguise" and is a "sublimated image of [Van Gogh's] deepest religious feelings." Citing Van Gogh's avowed admiration for the paintings of Eugène Delacroix, and especially the earlier painter's use of Prussian blue and citron-yellow in paintings of Christ, she theorizes that Van Gogh used these colors to represent Christ in The Starry Night. Soth criticizes Schapiro's and Loevgren's biblical interpretations, dependent as they are on a reading of the crescent moon as incorporating elements of the sun. Soth says it is merely a crescent moon, which, she writes, also had symbolic meaning for Van Gogh, representing "consolation."
It is in light of such symbolist interpretations of The Starry Night that art historian Albert Boime presents his study of the painting. As noted above, Boime has proven that the painting depicts not only the topographical elements of Van Gogh's view from his asylum window, but also the celestial elements, identifying not only Venus but also the constellation Aries. He suggests that Van Gogh originally intended to paint a gibbous moon but "reverted to a more traditional image" of the crescent moon, and theorizes that the bright aureole around the resulting crescent is a remnant of the original gibbous version. He recounts Van Gogh's interest in the writings of Victor Hugo and Jules Verne as possible inspiration for his belief in an afterlife on stars or planets. And he provides a detailed discussion of the well-publicized advances in astronomy that took place during Van Gogh's lifetime.
Boime asserts that while Van Gogh never mentioned astronomer Camille Flammarion in his letters, he believes that Van Gogh must have been aware of Flammarion's popular illustrated publications, which included drawings of spiral nebulae (as galaxies were then called) as seen and photographed through telescopes. Boime interprets the swirling figure in the central portion of the sky in The Starry Night to represent either a spiral galaxy or a comet, photographs of which had also been published in popular media. He asserts that the only non-realistic elements of the painting are the village and the swirls in the sky. These swirls represent Van Gogh's understanding of the cosmos as a living, dynamic place.
Harvard astronomer Charles A. Whitney conducted his own astronomical study of The Starry Night contemporaneously with but independent of Boime (who spent almost his entire career at U.C.L.A.). While Whitney does not share Boime's certainty with regard to the constellation Aries, he concurs with Boime on the visibility of Venus in Provence at the time the painting was executed. He also sees the depiction of a spiral galaxy in the sky, although he gives credit for the original to Anglo-Irish astronomer William Parsons, Lord Rosse, whose work Flammarion reproduced.
Whitney also theorizes that the swirls in the sky could represent wind, evoking the mistral that had such a profound effect on Van Gogh during the twenty-seven months he spent in Provence. (It was the mistral which triggered his first breakdown after entering the asylum, in July, 1889, less than a month after painting The Starry Night.) Boime theorizes that the lighter shades of blue just above the horizon show the first light of morning.
The village has been variously identified as either a recollection of Van Gogh's Dutch homeland or based on a sketch he made of the town of Saint-Rémy. In either case, it is an imaginary component of the picture, not visible from the window of the asylum bedroom.
Cypress trees have long been associated with death in European culture, though the question of whether Van Gogh intended for them to have such a symbolic meaning in The Starry Night is the subject of an open debate. In an April, 1888, letter to Bernard, Van Gogh referred to "funereal cypresses," though this is possibly similar to saying "stately oaks" or "weeping willows." 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 astonishes me that they have not yet been done as I see them." In the same letter he mentioned "two studies of cypresses of that difficult shade of bottle green." These statements suggests that Van Gogh was interested in the trees more for their formal qualities than for their symbolic connotation.
Schapiro refers to the cypress in the painting as a "vague symbol of a human striving." Boime calls it the "symbolic counterpart of van Gogh's own striving for the Infinite through non-orthodox channels." Art historian Vojtech Jirat-Wasiutynski says that for Van Gogh the cypresses "function as rustic and natural obelisks" providing a "link between the heavens and the earth." (Some commentators see one tree, others see two or more.) Loevgren reminds the reader that "the cypress is the tree of death in the Mediterranean countries."
Art historian Ronald Pickvance says that with "its arbitrary collage of separate motifs," The Starry Night "is overtly stamped as an 'abstraction'." Pickvance claims that cypress trees were not visible facing east from Van Gogh's room, and he includes them with the village and the swirls in the sky as products of Van Gogh's imagination. Boime asserts that the cypresses were visible in the east, as does Jirat-Wasiutyński. Van Gogh biographers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith concur, saying that Van Gogh "telescoped" the view in certain of the pictures of the view from his window, and it stands to reason that Van Gogh would do this in a painting featuring the morning star. Such a compression of depth serves to enhance the brightness of planet.
Soth uses Van Gogh's statement to his brother, that The Starry Night is "an exaggeration from the point of view of arrangement" to further her argument that the painting is "an amalgam of images." However, it is by no means certain that Van Gogh was using "arrangement" as a synonym for "composition." 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 white cloud and background of mountains, as well as the Moonrise and the Night effect," as he called it, "these are exaggerations from the point of view of the arrangement, their lines are contorted like those of the ancient woodcuts." The first two pictures are universally acknowledged to be realistic, non-composite views of their subjects. What the three pictures do have in common is exaggerated color and brushwork of the type that Theo referred to when he criticized Van Gogh for his "search for style [that] takes away the real sentiment of things" in The Starry Night.
On two other occasions around this time, Van Gogh used the word "arrangement" to refer to color, similar to the way James Abbott McNeill Whistler used the term. In a letter to Gauguin in January, 1889, he wrote, "As an arrangement of colours: the reds moving through to pure oranges, intensifying even more in the flesh tones up to the chromes, passing into the pinks and marrying with the olive and Veronese greens. As an impressionist arrangement of colours, I’ve never devised anything better." (The painting he is referring to is La Berceuse, which is a realistic portrait of Augustine Roulin with an imaginative floral background.) And to Bernard in late November, 1889: "But this is enough for you to understand that I would long to see things of yours again, like the painting of yours that Gauguin has, those Breton women walking in a meadow, the arrangement of which is so beautiful, the colour so naively distinguished. Ah, you’re exchanging that for something — must one say the word — something artificial — something affected."
When Van Gogh calls The Starry Night a failure for being an "abstraction," he places the blame on his having painted "stars that are too big."
While stopping short of calling the painting a hallucinatory vision, Naifeh and Smith discuss The Starry Night in the context of Van Gogh's mental illness, which they identify as temporal lobe epilepsy, or latent epilepsy. "Not the kind," they write, "known since antiquity, that caused the limbs to jerk and the body to collapse ('the falling sickness', as it was sometimes called), but a mental epilepsy—a seizing up of the mind: a collapse of thought, perception, reason, and emotion that manifested itself entirely in the brain and often prompted bizarre, dramatic behavior." Symptoms of the seizures "resembled fireworks of electrical impulses in the brain."
Van Gogh experienced his second breakdown in seven months in July, 1889. Naifeh and Smith theorize that the seeds of this breakdown were present when Van Gogh painted The Starry Night, that in giving himself over to his imagination "his defenses had been breached." On that day in mid-June, in a "state of heightened reality," with all the other elements of the painting in place, Van Gogh threw himself into the painting of the stars, producing, they write, "a night sky unlike any other the world had ever seen with ordinary eyes."
After having initially held it back, Van Gogh sent The Starry Night to Theo in Paris on 28 September 1889, along with nine or ten other paintings. Theo died less than six months after Vincent, in January, 1891. Theo's widow, Jo, then became the caretaker of Van Gogh's legacy. She sold the painting to poet Julien Leclercq in Paris in 1900, who turned around and sold it to Émile Schuffenecker, Gauguin's old friend, in 1901. Jo then bought the painting back from Schuffenecker before selling it to the Oldenzeel Gallery in Rotterdam in 1906. From 1906 to 1938 it was owned by one Georgette P. van Stolk, of Rotterdam, who sold it to Paul Rosenberg, of Paris and New York. It was through Rosenberg that the Museum of Modern Art acquired the painting in 1941.
The painting hangs along with other paintings by Van Gogh in an imaginary gallery in Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (1990).
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- The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute: Cypresses in Starry Night in the Lost Art digital collection. Retrieved 3 June 2012.
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- Naifeh and Smith, p. 749; emphasis in the original
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- "The Provenance Research Project". Museum of Modern Art. Retrieved 16 August 2014.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to The Starry Night.|
- The Starry Night at the Museum of Modern Art
- Van Gogh, paintings and drawings: a special loan exhibition, a fully digitized exhibition catalog from The Metropolitan Museum of Art Libraries, which contains material on this painting (see index)