An expressive night sky over a small hillside village-There is not a person who hasn’t come across the breathtakingly magnificent masterpiece “Starry Night” by the Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh. It is one of the most popular and probably the most reproduced piece of art to this day. This work is so remarkable that we see it in restaurants, hotels, mugs, T-shirts, notebooks, literally everywhere. However, the real story behind this impressionist gem is known to few.
Plagued by mental problems throughout his life, his condition worsened when he had a fight with his friend, Paul Gauguin. He fell victim to increased hallucinations, and delusions of being poisoned. Van Gogh painted The Starry Night during his 12 month-long stays at the Saint-de-Mausole asylum near Saint-Remy-de-Provence, France, few months after undergoing a breakdown in which he cut off a part of his own ear with a razor. While at the asylum, he painted during rounds of productivity that alternated with feelings of despair.
The Starry Night was the view from Van Gogh’s window on a clear night sky. In a letter to his sister Wilhemien, he wrote, “It often seems to me that the night is even more richly colored than the day, colored with the most intense violets, blues, and greens. If you look carefully, you’ll see that some stars are lemony, others have a pink, green, forget-me-not blue glow. And without laboring the point, it’s clear to paint a starry sky, it’s not nearly enough to put white spots on blue-black.”
The oil painting is dominated by a night sky with chromatic blue swirls, a glowing crescent moon, and stars depicted as radiating orbs. A few cypress trees, often described as towers over the foreground to the left, their dark branches crawling and waving to the movement of the sky that they partly concealed. Amid all this animation, lies a village with small cottages, and a slender steeple of the church, standing against the dark blue hills. The glowing yellow light coming from the houses represent the warm and welcoming village neighborhood.
Physicist Jose Luis Aragon compared the turbulent play of light and dark to the mathematical expression of turbulence in such natural occurrences as whirlpools or air streams. Aragon suggests that since the artist created these artworks during a period of extreme mental disturbance, Van Gogh was uniquely able to correctly communicate that agitation using precise degrees of fluorescence.
While The Starry Night and other paintings of Van Gogh were ahead of his time and paved the way for Expressionism, the artist was largely unappreciated during his whole lifetime. The feelings of unappreciation Van Gogh must have experienced before and after going to the asylum, are noticeable in his paintings. There is more to the story and the meaning of Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night than just insanity and isolation.
Van Gogh painted The Starry Night in 1889 and sadly, on July 27, 1890, he shot himself in the chest with a revolver. His last words to his brother Theo, when joined by him on his deathbed were, “The sadness will last forever.” He left more than 800 paintings and 700 to 850 drawings to his brother.
The painting has been in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City since 1941.
Rahnuma Aziz Nisa
Intern, Content Writing Department, YSSE