Last Monday I featured one of my favorite paintings, and tonight I plan to feature another all-time favorite. I know the choice of Van Gogh’s The Starry Night is predictable and trite, but it’s the painting that made me fall in love with paintings. When I was in college, I had a poster of the painting that I took with me from dorm to dorm, apartment to apartment, until it had so many pinholes and tears that I finally had to throw it out. At one time, the painting was the image on my phone cover; I had a laptop cover with that image as well. It is a painting that I can never get tired of looking at–it has the quality known as inexhaustibility.
The Starry Night, Vincent van Gogh, 1889
Van Gogh’s life has been the subject of books and movies because he was the quintessential suffering artist, toiling away in his attic–or in his case, his mental asylum–in order to satisfy his muse. In the case of The Starry Night, this is pretty close to being right. The view that we see in this work is what the artist saw from the window of his room at the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum near the town of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. The facts of the painting and its provenance are interesting and worth more study, but they are not what attracts millions of people to this glorious work. Its the brushstrokes, the colors, and the subject matter that are so appealing, in my opinion.
A brief overview of some basic art concepts might be useful here. Vertical lines in a painting imply strength; horizontal lines provide stability; diagonal lines impart movement and tension; curving lines also add movement, as well as softness. In this painting, it is instructive to note that we see almost no horizontal lines. The horizon itself is on a diagonal, moving upwards from left to right. I believe this tells us that van Gogh did not feel stable or at peace; after all, he had checked himself into the asylum because he could not trust himself. There are two very prominent vertical elements in the painting–the cypress tree in the foreground and the church steeple in the middle ground. If vertical items impart strength, then I think we can assume that the church and the tree represented possible sources of strength to the struggling artist. The church’s steeple is elongated, as if it is stretching toward heaven. In a letter to his brother, van Gogh wrote,
“I have a terrible need of–dare I say the word?–religion. Then I go out at night to paint the stars…”
Van Gogh’s father was a minister, and as a young man, Vincent studied theology and tried to enroll in a seminary. He spent a bit of time as a missionary, too, but ultimately felt his calling as an artist. In his time at the asylum, I think perhaps he saw the church and religion as a possible refuge or means of regaining the strength and stability of his earlier days.
But in the foreground, we see the cypress tree, much larger and more prominent than the church. For ages, cypress trees have been associated with mourning and death. Some have called this variety of Italian cypress the “graveyard cypress.” The predominance of the tree in the right foreground of The Starry Night makes me wonder if van Gogh might have been viewing death as the solution to his problems and stresses, perhaps thinking that death would be easier for him than a return to religion. A year later, the artist shot himself in the chest and died of infection from his wound. According to his brother Theo, Vincent’s last words were,
“The sadness will last forever.”
So is it all doom and gloom in this painting? Not at all. It’s the sky that arrests our attention, that draws us back again and again. The moon and stars in the heavens are what have attracted the artist’s eye, as they take up almost half of the canvas. Those swirls and whorls of yellow and white against the background of blues are what give the painting its excitement, energy, and vibrance. Looking into Vincent’s sky allows us to believe in the transcendence of beauty in the natural world. It gives us hope. We can see magic in the stars, feel the marvel of the universe, hear the music of the spheres.
Earlier I mentioned my poster and phone and laptop covers. I also have a credit card with a partial image of The Starry Night, and when I use it I always get some kind of compliment or remark–usually something like, “Oh I love that painting.” It has inspired songs and poetry and even an episode of Doctor Who. Type <starry night> into Amazon’s search box and you’ll find the image on everything, from socks to coffee mugs. I once saw a car with the image applied as a wrap around the entire vehicle–I was in slow traffic so I took a picture of it while I was driving (not recommended!). The image is ubiquitous because it is universally loved. If you’re interested in learning more trivia about this great painting, try this article from Mental Floss. I hope you enjoyed visiting The Starry Night.