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The Making of a Masterpiece: Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night

The Starry Night is considered to be Vincent van Gogh’s masterpiece, painted while he was a patient in a mental asylum at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. The swirling composition of the sky and the melancholic blue color palette, coupled with Van Gogh’s tragic history, have caused the artwork to become one of the most recognizable paintings of all time. There is so much to explore within The Starry Night, and in this article, Singulart focuses on the story behind the painting, the composition and interpretations, and how it has been represented in popular culture. 

The story of The Starry Night

Van Gogh could be considered the archetype of the tortured artist. Plagued by mental problems throughout his life, his condition rapidly deteriorated following a fight with his friend Paul Gauguin, during which he famously cut off part of his own ear. Although he went back and forth between his home (depicted in Yellow House) and the hospital, he fell victim to increased hallucinations, and delusions that he was being poisoned. 

He voluntarily checked himself into a psychiatric asylum in Saint-Rémy, France. Because the asylum catered to the wealthy, and was only half occupied on Van Gogh’s arrival, he was able to maintain a relative amount of privacy and could even convert one of the rooms into a studio. 

During his time there, Van Gogh produced over one hundred paintings, and although many were of the building and its surrounding grounds, he also produced some of the most highly praised pieces of his career. His famous blue self-portrait was painted during this time, as well as Irises, and of course his magnum opus, The Starry Night

Vincent van Gogh, Self portrait (1889)
Vincent van Gogh, Self portrait (1889)

The Starry Night is of course the most well-known from this time period, and was the view outside of Van Gogh’s window on a clear, still night. In a letter to his brother Theo, he wrote, “Through the iron-barred window, I can see an enclosed square of wheat… above which, in the morning, I watch the sun rise in all its glory.” In another letter he stated, “This morning I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big.” In an interesting turn of events, researchers have determined that this would have been the planet Venus, and that this can be seen in the painting just to the right of the cypress tree. 

Van Gogh continued to paint after leaving the asylum, where he lived in Auvers-sur-Oise under the care of homeopathic doctor Dr. Gachet. Sadly, Van Gogh was not able to overcome his mental illness, and on July 27, 1890, he shot himself in the chest with a revolver. Joined on his deathbed by his brother Theo, his last words were reportedly, “The sadness will last forever.”

Looking into The Starry Night

Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night (1889)
Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night (1889)

One of the first things the viewer notices about The Starry Night is the swirling, dreamlike sky. The viewer’s eye naturally follows these whirls, punctuated by clusters of yellow circles surrounded by a white glow. The rolling swirls in the sky give the piece a fluidity, and a sense of continuity. To achieve this effect, he used a loaded brush to create an impasto texture, which means the texture is applied heavily onto the canvas, leaving the brushstrokes and paint-knife marks visible (a feature evident in much of Van Gogh’s work). This technique gave the artwork an expressive quality, one that was in line with his work as an impressionist. 

The vivid colors in The Starry Night also suggest emotion rather than realism. Although it has been argued that Van Gogh could have been suffering from lead poisoning late in his life, causing him to choose rather odd colors in his pieces, it seems likely that he was representing the night sky in a way that was particular to him. In a letter to his sister Wilhemien, Van Gogh wrote:

“It often seems to me that the night is even more richly colored than the day, colored with the most intense violets, blues, and greens. If you look carefully, you’ll see that some stars are lemony, others have a pink, green, forget-me-not blue glow. And without laboring the point, it’s clear to paint a starry sky, it’s not nearly enough to put white spots on blue-black.”

Although the colors don’t quite blend together, the broken effect means that the viewer’s gaze is constantly jumping from rich Prussian blue, to cobalt, to ultramarine, intercepted by the deep Indian yellow of the moon and the bright cadmium yellow surrounding the stars. It’s a wonderful effect that gives the piece a sense of vibrancy and movement. 

What does it mean? 

Of course, given the artwork’s tragic backstory, there are numerous interpretations about what could have been going through Van Gogh’s mind when he created The Starry Night. One of the most striking parts of The Starry Night is the curved, black cypress tree at the right of the piece. Cypress trees are commonly associated with cemeteries and death, and perhaps the prominence of the tree in the piece was intended to symbolize Van Gogh’s depressed mental state. 

The cypress tree has an almost threatening presence over the still, calm town. Spanning almost the entire height of the canvas, it has been interpreted as a link between life (the town and the landscape) and death (the sky). Van Gogh was intrigued by the topic of death, writing, “Just as we take the train to go to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to go to a star.”

Although Van Gogh denied that The Starry Night had any religious meaning, critics have argued that it may show some subliminal religious messages. In particular, it has been argued that The Starry Night could be associated with the Bible quote Genesis 37:9, which reads, “And he dreamed yet another dream, and told it his brethren, and said, Behold, I have dreamed a dream more; and behold the sun and the moon and the eleven stars made obeisance to me.” These critics have also stated that the visibility of the church spire was a clear reference to van Gogh’s religious upbringing. 

Interpretations about the meaning of The Starry Night fall pretty divide into two trains of thought. First, that it was a message of hope; although things may appear dark, there will always be something to light the darkness. To expand on this ‘positive’ interpretation, it has also been said that The Starry Night could be symbolic of Van Gogh becoming at peace with the idea of death and accepting his ascension into heaven. 

However, other interpretations paint a far darker picture. This argument states that The Starry Night is a depiction of van Gogh’s deteriorating mental state, and the swirling sky echoed the chaos in his mind (van Gogh was believed to suffer from epileptic fits while at the asylum in addition to depression). The presence of the cypress tree, then, is something ominous, a beacon of the end of van Gogh’s life. 

Maybe even Van Gogh himself did not know exactly what inspired The Starry Night, as he wrote to Theo, “I don’t know anything with certainty, but seeing the stars makes me dream.”

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