Vincent van Gogh Starry Night, 1889
Oil, canvas, 73,7 × 92,1 cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA
For centuries artists have been seeking inspiration for their work in mother nature. Their imagination moved by vast meadows, fields, forests, dusk and dawns of the sun. But few have ever set out into the night’s sky. Benign infinity which overwhelms through its immensity, however oddly soothing. After all, it takes a maniac to capture so distinctly the darkness of a night. The one found in Vincent van Gogh. Starry Night is a notorious piece by this underappreciated genius. A genius who have only decided to become an artist not until his 27th birthday. By mere 10 years of creating has he truly changed the history of art.
Distinctness is not well seen to say the least. Hard to bear, it burdens and aches. May it was the case with Vincent van Gogh – an artist of a demanding nature, idealistic grit and thick brushwork paintings – was so unpopular in his times. Today cherished, during his life – forsaken, tumbled by fate and utterly underrated as an artist. He sold a single painting while living. He had been writing in his letters to his brother Theo:
“I’m in a desperate need – I’m going to say this – of religion, therefore I set out during the night, to paint the stars.”
The story behind the painting of Starry Night is almost as poetic as the piece itself. The composition was made in 1889, in rather unusual surroundings of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole’s psychiatric hospital in Saint-Remy in south of France. Throughout his life he suffered from psychiatric disorders and epilepsy issues. During period in which he was working on the painting his condition was severe and being hospitalised seemed like the only reasonable solution.
But let’s get back to the 23rd of December 1888, shall we? The time when the infamous quarrel Gaguin and van Gogh happened. Along with changes in Vincent’s brother’s life who wrote about his recent affection to Johanna Bonger. Theo a caring brother who has always been looking out for him and now planning to marry a girl, it all drove Vincent into self-aggression. Which led to cutting his own ear off.
Left by a friend moved aside to the background by his own brother. More and more the disease started to take its toll on Vincent. These events gave rise to the social pressure to seek a professional treatment. At first reluctant, later slowly enchanted by the Mediterranean charm of the French little town. It is said, that his hospital’s window offered a lovely view of olive groves, the Alpilles hills.
Charming hospital’s advertisement depicts it as a dreamlike place for a treatment, but in reality it was a cold monastery transformed into a mental asylum.
In spite of ascetic conditions it was really beneficial period for van Gogh’s work. He made there an abundant amount of 142 paintings. He polished his own style by painting winding cypresses, curled up clouds, ridged slopes of Provençal mountains.
There it was, the fairy-tale-like nature that became the very starting point for one of rare Vincent’s artwork, made from imagination. It was enriched with several Parisian inspirations. After spending there 2 years artist was filled and soaked with French impressionism influence and Japanese woodcuts. Martin Bailey reckons that indeed it was Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa that shaped the composition of Starry Night.
Starry Night isn’t a piece that has been made under heat of a moment inspiration. Vincent repeatedly mentioned about an urge to pour the night’s theme over a canvas. Already in 1888 he wrote to his sister Willema:
“Now absolutely I want to paint sky full of stars. Often it occurs to me that a night becomes more and more colourful than a day. Full of intensified violets, blues and greens. If you pay close attention then you’ll notice that some stars are citruses others have shade of rose, green and indigo, like forget-me-nots. It goes without a saying that it takes more than just white dots over blueish darkness to paint a sky full of stars.”
From these words we can deduce, that the piece is a product of matured creative reflection of van Gogh, although some detects there, a repercussion of meds that he was taking, or just the fact of being mentally unstable. There are lots of theories concerning this painting. Proofs are sought to determine if Vincent just reproduced the appearance of the horizon of June 1889. Other theoreticians point out the fact that it reflects spiritual ravishment of the artist and it’s a reference to St. John’s Apocalypse. Another theories connect similarity of painting’s stars arrangement with scientific sketches of spiral galaxies. For years this work inspires artists, poets, religious scholars and scientists.
Vincent, cosmos and NASA
In 2004 NASA’s scientists used Hubble’s telescope and photographed a star with its surrounding gas and interstellar dust, the resemblance was so uncanny that research was carried out to clear how it was possible for an artist without scientific knowledge to depict so complicated turbulence phenomena. Physicist José Luis Aragón from University of Mexico was trying to prove that van Gogh’s piece describes quite well the scheme of spreading turbulence. May it be that the explanation is totally different.
In 1845 William Parsons sketched spiral M51 galaxy, called Vortex Galaxy, and in 1880 a popularising astronomy book by Camille Flammarion was released Astronomie Populaire, where illustrations based on Parson’s drawing were published. May it be that it became an inspiration for van Gogh. Whether he saw it in Paris or it could be found in the hospital’s library – it’s unknown.
Starry Night wasn’t the first nocturne of Vincent van Gogh. One year earlier he painted Café Terrace at Night and Starry Night Over the Rhône.
In this starry night representation he’s rather more focused on the starlight reflection on the water’s surface than on night’s sky. Both artworks supplements each other.
Though, it’s important what kind of feelings Starry Night provides us with. This vibrating composition based on spiral forms, a captured contrast between the bottom part of the painting. Filled with geometrical chunks of nearby town’s houses enraptures with its unpretentious message.
Ominous, dark cypresses on the foreground, interpreted by some as a symbol for death. On night’s sky panorama artist presumably painted Venus, though he called it himself the “morning star”. Whereas the sequence of stars in the painting resembles the milky way. Everything’s alive, pulsing, almost tangible, giving out an impression that it is we who stand in the window and in mysterious half dream we imbibe the beauty of the French landscape.
Victor Baldin and his suitcase
One more interesting story relates to the inception of Starry Night, and it deals with a sketch prepared during process of piece coming into being. In 1908 the artwork found itself in Kunsthalle Bremen, however soon it was lost during the World War II breakout. The sketch was found by accident by a Red Army soldier, Victor Baldin.
On the Karnzow castle, not far from Berlin, where his unit stationed, what turned out, was hidden a collection from Bremen. When soldiers moved a closet a basement door came to their sight, which would be a paradise for quite a few art lovers. When Baldwin was called up, there were flying multiple art pieces on the floor, drawings, graphics, and soldiers without hesitation stood on them. Before war Baldwin had studied architecture and he had attended history of art classes, therefore he appreciated the value of the findings right away. He wanted to move them in his car, but he didn’t get permission from his superiors. That’s why he decided to take them in raw form in his suitcase. Turned out to be the only way to save them. Young soldier succeeded in packing 364 artworks, among them van Gogh’s Starry Night sketch. He came back Soviet Union with a valuable cargo. How great must have been his joy when after troubles and sufferings of wandering he saw not only van Gogh’s sketch but work of artists such as Dürer, Veronese, Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Tiepolo, Degas or Toulouse-Lautrec. After cataloguing the pieces he gave them over to the Moscow Architecture Museum, but because of complicated origin of the collection they are currently stored in hermitage and aren’t displayed to wider audience in Russia, and they never made it back to Germany.
Fortunately the original Starry Night is available for all of art lovers in Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Author: Paulina Kamińska
Translated from Polish by
Mateusz Troka: An engineer from Trójmiasto, ~2m tall, too many interests for just one lifetime. Huge fan of anything that’s been crafted. He’d like to pose as a quiet pulled back thinker, quite the contrary. He could talk you to death! In art he cherishes the idea and background story behind a piece. Where was and what felt an artist during creation process. An artwork means for any person something special something different one of a kind, that’s beautiful about art. After all, great appreciation comes from within.