Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night is one of the most discussed and influential pieces of artwork ever created. During his life time, Van Gogh painted for only a short time but was very prolific in those few years. As far as oil paintings are concerned, Starry Night has become as important in popular culture as any of the greatest songs and films of our generation. Painted while staying in the Saint-Remy Asylum in June of 1889, Starry Night has no directly known source and was actually painted in response to at least one earlier work that Van Gogh worked on, Starry Night on the Rhone. In fact, there were numerous Starry Nights painted by Van Gogh, each depicting slightly different scenes and representing different periods in his artistic progression.
Some Basic Analysis of Starry Night – by Vincent Van Gogh
The Starry Night – 1889
Van Gogh’s Starry Night is a unique painting for numerous reasons. Composed in slight contrast to the impressionist style of the 19th century, Van Gogh’s work is an exaggerated, surreal work that is at equal measures relaxing and intriguing. The painting itself depicts a collection of lightly swirled clouds and overwhelming, blazing stars in the sky. Everything is larger than life and the sky appears more like a frothy ocean than the heavens at night .The curves and pinpoint location of each star forces the observer’s eyes to move about the painting as much as possible.
Directly below the sky is a small town, composed of darkened colors and brightly lit window spaces, creating a sense of wonder emanating from each window. The steeple of the church acts as a binding force, representing stability and centrality for the town. On the far left side of the painting is the curvy, unknown structure that has intrigued scholars for decades. Painted in the same manner as the sky with curving, flowing lines, the structure could be anything from a tree to a mountain. Much has been made of the colors used in Van Gogh’s Starry Night, especially the heavy use of yellow that permeated much of his later work. Theories including lead poisoning and certain brain diseases have been postulated as reasons for his odd color selections late in life.
Starry Night – History and Possible Meaning
There have been numerous possible interpretations of Van Gogh’s purpose in painting Starry Night. Many have cited Van Gogh’s desire to dedicate his life to helping the poor and spreading religious messages. The eleven stars in the sky are possibly related to a direct quote from the bible in Genesis and the church spire a binding force for that quotation.
Van Gogh himself related many words about his work to his brother Theo in his letters. Specific Van Gogh quotes on Starry Night have described the painting as having “lines [that] are warped as that of old wood” and “exaggerations from the point of view of arrangement”. He was possibly unhappy with how the painting turned out though the overall effect was more confounding to him than disappointing.
As for the opinions of others, Starry Night was not immediately recognized as the masterpiece it is today, as was the case with almost all of his work. Early Starry Night critiques had trouble placing the painting into any of the existing arenas of style and method. However, in the early 20th century, much of Van Gogh’s work received careful attention from a new generation of painters, the post-impressionists.
Starry Night over the Rhone – by Vincent Van Gogh (also known as Starlight over the Rhone)
Starry Night over the Rhone – 1888
The version of Starry Night that so many have seen and know is not the only version of the painting created by Van Gogh in his life time. Another painting which he was very proud of was the Starry Night over the Rhone variation, painted in Arles in 1888. The painting is very similar to its more famous brethren in that it also contains large, glowing orbs in the sky, numerous light points to keep the eye moving about the painting and darkened structures glowing behind the light of the stars.
However, Starry Night over the Rhone also contains humans, a feature that the former does not. A couple is walking together in the bottom right corner of the painting, placing the human and romantic element rather than the religious into context with the rest of the imagery. The Starry Night over the Rhone’s setting is also a recognizable space, captured by Van Gogh while in Arles and overlooking the Rhone while Starry Night was painted from memory, depicting a location that has yet to be discerned.
Starry Night has been an enduring image in the cultural progression of Western society for more than a century.
As one of the most reproduced paintings on earth, it has been viewed and can be recognized by billions of individuals the world over. One of the more interesting additions to the cultural impact of the painting is Don McClean’s song about Van Gogh, Starry, Starry Night, a song that parallels his life and work with lines like “Starry, Starry Night. Flaming flowers that brightly blaze, Swirling clouds in violet haze Reflect in Vincent’s eyes of china blue.” The song goes on to describe numerous other paintings by Van Gogh and their effect on how we view art today.