Written and edited by Kathryn Cooperman.
Cover image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The Starry Night (1889) by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), which is on view in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is an iconic painting in the Western canon of art history. This scene, which depicts a chaotic, unsettled sky looming over a small town, is an Expressionist work that was created at the height of the Post-Impressionist movement at the end of the nineteenth century. Artists of this time were moving away from perfection and order in their canvases, and instead used vibrant combinations of colors to express their raw emotions (this choice of color was a departure from that of the Impressionists, who used color to reflect hues as they experienced them in nature). The Starry Night exemplifies this time period perfectly, with yellows, blues, greens, whites and browns to give the scene life, and swirling brushstrokes that render the painting a living, breathing entity. The work as a whole imparts an emotional and contemplative experience due to how lifelike it appears.
This chaotic work also opens a window onto van Gogh’s turbulent mind. He lived a deeply troubled existence – one that was tragically cut short by suicide at age 37 – and this frenetic painting gives the viewer a sense of his anxieties. van Gogh created the work in the Saint-Paul asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, which acted as a haven for him in the last year of his life, when he descended into a depressive episode after cutting off his own ear. This depression brought forth a prolific period for the artist, in which he created 150 works, The Starry Night being one of them.
Regarding the subject of the painting, van Gogh was inspired by the view outside his window at the asylum, about which he wrote to his brother Theo in 1889: “This morning I saw the countryside from my window…with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big…adding to it a feeling so heartbreaking, so personal.” He was deeply moved by this poignant subject, which caused him to create The Starry Night, a scene that portrays elements from reality through the chaotic filter through which the artist saw the world. He features the stars prominently as they punctuate the night sky, with larger circles of yellow and blue encasing them, almost in a dreamlike way. Venus (the “morning star” mentioned in the letter) is encircled in halos of white, and the yellow moon brightly shines in the top right corner of the canvas. He portrays the sky in a vibrant and wistful way, reflecting his own sadness.
Scholars believe that van Gogh’s prevalent use of yellow in this painting was due to the side effects of medicine he was administered while at the asylum. The drug, digitalis, which was supposed to help cure van Gogh’s epilepsy, may have caused a yellow-green tint in his vision and the appearance of large yellow spots, which helps to explain his obsession with this color and subject, and their prominence on his canvas. The artist may also have been inspired by a famous drawing of the Whirlpool Galaxy, which was popularized by a mid-nineteenth century astronomical book. The swirls present at the center of the canvas may indeed represent this galaxy, but the juxtaposition of blues and think layering of brushstrokes make the subject appear fantastical and agitated.
Furthermore, the painting itself represents the connection between life and death. If the town in the lower half of the canvas conveys life, and the otherworldly sky symbolizes death, then the looming black cypress tree, which is an emblem of mourning, can signify a sinister bridge from the bottom realm to the top. Because of his illnesses, van Gogh was obsessed with his own death, and through the creation of this painting, just a year before his passing and during a highly creative period in his life, he was undoubtedly contemplating that fate. The Starry Night is an arresting and captivating composition created during such a significant period in the artist’s life, serving to solidify the work in the Post-Impressionist canon.