that of Vincent van Gogh The starry Night (1889) is the most famous celestial scene in the history of art and one of the most beloved paintings in the world. (the phenomenon of Van Gogh’s immersive experience seems to prove that people not only want to watch it, but to be inside this too).
It’s not hard to see why. The Post-Impressionist masterpiece buzzes with a swirling internal energy all of its own. In the foreground of the painting, a cypress ignites against a night sky that resonates with dazzling shades of blue. Van Gogh conjures up a sky that is not static and distant, but alive and moving, and the stars and the moon shine with rings of luminous yellow. Under that brilliant night sky, a village sleeps quietly, seemingly shrouded in the protection of the heavens, a lone church spire striving to touch them.
Besides its formal qualities, a tradition has been built around painting, largely due to the circumstances surrounding its creation. Van Gogh did The starry Night at the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum in Saint-Rémy, in the south of France, where he had voluntarily admitted following a manic episode during which he had sadly mutilated his ear . Many have interpreted the painting as Van Gogh’s contemplation of his own mortality – the cypress was a common symbol of death and mourning, and the artist often associated the stars with the afterlife. In a letter to his brother Theo, he wrote: “But the sight of the stars always makes me dream… Why, I said to myself, would the luminous spots of the firmament be less accessible to us than the black spots of the map of France? As we take the train to go to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to go to a star.
But while the artist’s masterpiece certainly lends itself to emotional interpretations, it is also the highly regarded result of one of the most productive periods of his career. The asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole was a progressive institution in which patients were encouraged to spend time in nature, and the artist’s brother made sure his brother had a workshop and sufficient time to paint.
There, in the shrouded security of the asylum, Van Gogh experienced some of his brightest and most peaceful moments. He painted his famous Iris during his early days there, and he would continue to paint The starry Night in a few days in June 1889.
Despite the ubiquity of painting in popular culture, The starry Night is still full of wonderful surprises that have been ignored or misunderstood. We’ve uncovered three fascinating facts that might make you see things differently.
Van Gogh painted The starry Night During the day and took an artistic license with the cosmos
A common misconception is that Van Gogh painted his magnum opus while looking out the window from his room in the asylum. Although perhaps a less romantic view, the artist actually had a separate painting studio in Saint-Paul-de-Mausole where he worked during the day. This studio had no windows. Van Gogh, however, made sketches from his bedroom window, and in The starry Night, we see the slopes of the Alpilles, a mountain range, visible from his room.
Overall, however, the scene is a composite of precise and invented attributes. Van Gogh inserted the view of the village, for example, and took similar liberties with the sky. Some details are historically accurate: the bright orb in the center-left of the painting was identified by astronomers as the planet Venus, which would have been particularly bright in the summer of 1889. Constellations including Capella, Cassiopeia and Pegasus are also correctly positioned, some astronomers having gone so far as to identify the celestial scene as taking place at 4 am on June 19, 1889. However, just like with his depiction of the village, Van Gogh took a little creative license. The moon is depicted in the crescent phase, however, it would have been in the less evocative waning gibbous phase by the time he painted it..
Its glow is an optical illusion
While Van Gogh is often described as the epitome of the lonely and tortured artist, he was anything but out of touch with contemporary conversations about the latest developments in the arts. His discursive letters to his friends Paul Gaugin and Émile Bernard discussed the latest color theories, including the principles of color contrasts that Van Gogh derived from his hero, the neoclassical artist Eugène Delacroix.
In 1889, he wrote to Theo about his recent paintings: “When you will see them sometime […] I could give you a better idea of the things Gauguin, Bernard and I were talking about and dealing with often than I can do in words; it’s not a return to romanticism or religious ideas, no. But through Delacroix, one can express more nature and country, by means of color and an individual style of drawing, than one seems.
For Van Gogh, color was a vehicle for expressing emotion, and the brilliantly hued canvases of his late career largely succeeded in making new shades of paint available on the market. It is the intensity of the light in these colors on the canvas that gives The starry Night its unique shine. The contrasts between the strokes of paint create an optical effect called luminance, in which the brain experiences two simultaneous and competing sensory impulses. Simply put, part of the brain focuses on light and movement, but sees color less distinctly. Another part of the brain, however, will perceive each of the contrasting colors. Van Gogh’s bold and luminous brushstrokes signal these two experiences, creating the vacillating sense for which painting is so famous.
Hokusai Big wave Was an inspiration
Like many Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists, Van Gogh was deeply influenced by Japanese prints imported to Europe in the 19th century. While we can credit these prints, known as ukiyo-e in Japan – with more general trends, such as the flattening of planes and the use of aerial perspective in Western art, in the case of The starry Night, we see a more direct link. Many art historians believe that Van Gogh was directly inspired by Katsushika Hokusai The great wave off Kanagawa. Side by side, the similarities between rising tidal waves and swirling skies are easy to recognize. Van Gogh even wrote to Theo about the print, saying with a sense of wonder: “These waves are claws, the boat is caught in it, you can feel it.” Although it does not have an imprint of the Big wave with him at the asylum, historian Martin Bailey thinks he may have worked from memory, calling The starry Night “a work of the imagination with all kinds of conscious and unconscious elements that must have entered Vincent’s mind when he was painting.”
Follow Artnet News on Facebook:
Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the latest news, eye-opening interviews and cutting-edge reviews that keep the conversation going.