Van Gogh Starry Night (June, 1889)
Analysis of Van Gogh’s Starry Night
Painted in June of 1889, only a month after he admitted himself to the asylum at Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh seems to reflect the turbulent changes occurring in Vincent’s life at this time. Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo already had suggested his intent to paint “a starry night with cypresses.” Although this painting is now one of the most famous, expressive and expensive pieces of art in the world, Van Gogh and his brother Theo were actually less than pleased with the results of the painting.
Combining some of the strongest and most unique effects in the arsenal of Van Gogh, The Starry Night shows his undulating rhythm and spiraling sense of contrasting color and organic movement all within a rare nocturnal scene. Here, Van Gogh shows us not the stars he observed but exploding masses of gold fire expanding against the blue. Two of these swirl through the sky in a kind of cosmic embrace, unimagined by the denizens of the sleeping town below, but attainable through the intermediary of the dark-green cypresses that swirl upward into their visionary mist.
Arbitrary Use of Color in Van Gogh’s Starry Night
In The Starry Night Van Gogh takes a high-velocity, sweeping movement – normally reserved for his daytime scenes of wheatfields and trees – and applies them to a reversed nocturnal color pallette. Where the Van Gogh sunflowers were dominated by all shades and tones of yellow, with mild support from a complementary blue, The Starry Night Van Gogh reverses this dominance in favor of swirling auras of blue with only highlight of yellow. Exhibiting an increasingly arbitrary use of color by Van Gogh, The Starry Night’s colors are exaggerated and obviously surreal in their hyperbolic contrasts.
“For instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I see before me, I make more arbitrary use of color to express myself more forcefully.”
Showing a borderline fantastical and completely unreal nighttime scene, the Starry Night seems to be created in service to pure expression and audacious beauty, with little regard for any surface reality. Similar paintings by Vincent Van Gogh include his Church at Auvers and the Van Gogh Self Portrait at Saint Remy.
Van Gogh Painting the Starry Night
The composition of the Van Gogh Starry Night is complex and daring, but there are no signs of an underdrawing. Admittedly, it is often impossible to find underdrawings in the paintings, but because the work was painted quite loosely and the canvas shows through in many places, extensive preparation would certainly have left visible traces. At most, Van Gogh can only have done a very general preliminary sketch.
The cypresses in The Starry Night- the darkest tone in the composition- were put in first and were already reasonably dry when the surrounding colors were painted. This is evident because the other colors come up against the green and brown of the trees without disturbing the paint layer.
In the Starry Night Van Gogh uses a heavily impastoed, rhythmic, and structural brushstroke for his starry sky. The village and orchards in The Starry Night are also thickly painted, but with a freer touch. These passages are separated from one another by the much more thinly painted and less varied mountains of the Alpilles. Van Gogh used them to create a point of rest in the composition. To keep the picture from becoming too much of a large blue expanse, Van Gogh added a second dividing line between land and sky. Above the Alpilles there is a light strip whose nature is difficult to fathom. It may be the mist above the mountains illuminated by the bright moonlight, but whatever it is, in artistic terms it is a very effective touch.
Van Gogh painted The Starry Night according to a grid that he abandoned when his artistic intuition told him to, as we can see from the various stages of composition. He had, for instance, left openings in the blue for the stars, but it turned out that he had not made them large enough: six of the eleven stars were subsequently enlarged over the top of the blue, some just a little, some substantially. The light from the moon was also made larger at a later stage to get the balance between blue and yellow right and intensify the effect of light in the darkness. In the final phase Van Gogh added a deep, dark blue between the two stars to the left of the moon and the lower two on the right of the cypress: this increased the contrast, and hence the atmosphere. The tone of the cypresses was deepened still further with dark blue. The yellow touches of light in the houses are likewise late additions. This is not to say that Van Gogh did not originally intend to achieve this effect, since he always like to give houses signs of life.
The remarkable swirl that dominates the sky required considerable thought. Van Gogh wrestled with how much prominence to give it in the composition. Over its full length there are a number of long, pale purple strokes. This color did not have the effect that Van Gogh had in mind, and it was eventually muted with short dabs of light blue. It is a minor change whose very subtlety shows us just how far Van Gogh went in balancing every element of his works. Studying effects like these in The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh allows us a swift glance over the artist’s shoulder and gives us an insight into the intriguing process by which his paintings were created.
While he had seized the challenge of painting night scenes out of doors in his previous works Cafe Terrace and The Starry Night Over the Rhone, in both these previous paintings Van Gogh had relied at least to some extent on artificial light to illuminate his subject and his environment. In The Starry Night Van Gogh has instead used focused on an imaginative awe-inspiring nightscape over a diminuitive town, only illuminated by the stars and the moon overhead. In a letter to Emile Bernard from April 1888, Van Gogh had declared, “Certainly- imagination is a capacity that must be developed, and only that enables us to create a more exhalting and consoling nature that what just a glance at reality (which we perceive changing, passing quickly like lightning) allows use to perceive. A starry sky, for example-it’s a thing that I’d like to try and do.”
Precursors to Van Gogh’s Starry Night
By the late nineteenth century, depictions of the night sky had become increasingly popular. Jean-François Millet, whom Van Gogh so greatly admired, wrote, “If only you knew how beautiful the night is! There are times when I hurry out of doors at nightfall…and I always come in overwhelmed. The calm and the grandeur of it are so that I find I feel actually afraid.” Millet had composed a starry night painting around 1851, which Van Gogh may have seen while working at Goupil & Cie between 1873 and 1876. As it did for Millet, the star-filled sky had spiritual significance for Van Gogh. In September 1888 he wrote of “having a tremendous need for, shall I say the word- for religion – so I go outside at night to paint the stars, and I always dream a painting like that.”
In its composition, The Starry Night may be seen as relating to the low horizons typical of Dutch landscape paintings by Baroque artists such as Jacob and Ruisdael, while its meaning carries on the Romantic tradition of the sublime and spiritual in nature. This subject was explored by Walt Whitman, whose “visionary excitement….expansive, bursting energy, and absorption in swift cosmic rhythms” evoke Van Gogh’s exterior night scenes, especially The Starry Night.
With the small village in The Starry Night Van Gogh painted in jewel tones and nestled among the Alpilles a town inspired by the town of Saint-Remy. The dark cypress trees in the foreground and the swirling astral sky overhead, however, were brought forth from Van Gogh’s imagination and his belief in the symbolic properties of color and certain elements of nature: the cypress and the stars, for example, traditionally symbolize eternity. Furthermore, it is known that the moon at the time Van Gogh created The Starry Night was a gibbous moon, in the phase between a full-moon and half-moon, and not a crescent as the artist painted it. These flights of imagination reveal the liberties Van Gogh took with his subject and his obsession with conveying through expressionistic paint handling “nature’s rich and magnificent aspects.” In his last works Van Gogh had finally found, through the material act of painting, a means of expressing the spiritual qualities of nature.
Besides being one of the most famous paintings in the world and being reproduced in starry night posters, postcards and art prints around the world, Van Gogh’s Starry Night reaffirms the validity and truth of the subjective experience and seems to harmonize a boundless exterior world with an equally infinite interior landscape.