Van Gogh’s career as an artist was short and tragic. He never sold a painting during his lifetime, save one which was bought by his brother. While alive, he was more famous for his remarkable act of cutting off his lower ear lobe and presenting it to a young prostitute than he was for his art. Today, many of his paintings are considered to be masterpieces.
Considering the brief time span of his career as an artist, what is truly remarkable is the vast volume of work he produced, some 2000 drawings and paintings in total. At certain times, such as the period when he painted The Starry Night, the rate at which he was amassing paintings was almost an embarrassment. However, the toll of such an outpouring of creative energy was enormous and Van Gogh died less than a year after painting, The Starry Night.
By the time Van Gogh painted The Starry Night, he had developed a personal style so unique that even a layman could easily recognize his unsigned paintings
A sketch of what would later become the painting The Starry Night, was included in a letter Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, with whom he kept a close correspondence all his life. In this sketch, the same little town can be seen as well as the same little stars which appear like tiny suns hanging in the sky. The painting, like most of Van Gogh’s other paintings, was done while he was in Arles, a beautiful, rich burst of color. The stars, which in the sketch are depicted as little circles of white in a black drawing, become shiny and bright, illuminating the painting almost as brightly as the stars in the night sky illuminate the dark. Despite its beauty, the painting does however provoke a slight feeling of foreboding with the swirls of paint like strong gusts of wind and the dark tree in the front left of the painting.
Vincent van Gogh
The night sky depicted by van Gogh in the Starry Night painting is brimming with whirling clouds, shining stars, and a bright crescent moon. The setting is one that viewers can relate to and van Gogh´s swirling sky directs the viewer´s eye around the painting, with spacing between the stars and the curving contours creating a dot-to-dot effect. These internal elements ensure fluidity and such contours were important for the artist even though they were becoming less significant for other Impressionists. Thus Starry Night´s composition was distinct from the Impressionist technique of the 19th century.The artist was aware that his Starry Night composition was somewhat surreal and stylized and in a letter to his brother he even referred to "exaggerations in terms of composition. " The vivid style chosen by van Gogh was unusual - he chose lines to portray this night scene when silhouettes would have been a more obvious choice.In Starry Night contoured forms are a means of expression and they are used to convey emotion. Many feel that van Gogh´s turbulent quest to overcome his illness is reflected in the dimness of the night sky. The village is painted with dark colors but the brightly lit windows create a sense of comfort. The village is peaceful in comparison to the dramatic night sky and the silence of the night can almost be felt in Starry Night. The steeple dominates the village and symbolizes unity in the town. In terms of composition, the church steeple gives an impression of size and isolation.In the left foreground is a curvy cypress tree which is typically associated with mourning. It is painted in the same way as the sky with fluid lines which enhances the flow of the Starry Night painting well as its easiness on the eye.
Van Gogh´s choice of color in Starry Night has been much debated, particularly the dominance of yellow in this and other late works. Some believe van Gogh may have been suffering from lead poisoning or a type of brain disease and that this explains his strange use of color in later paintings.Van Gogh's use of white and yellow creates a spiral effect and draws attention to the sky. Vertical lines such as the cypress tree and church tower softly break up the composition without retracting from the powerful night sky depicted in Starry Night.Vincent van Gogh´s choice of dark blues and greens were complemented with touches of mint green showing the reflection of the moon. The buildings in the centre of the painting are small blocks of yellows, oranges, and greens with a dash of red to the left of the church. The dominance of blue in Starry Night is balanced by the orange of the night sky elements.Van Gogh paints the rich colors of the night and this corresponds with the true character of this Starry Night, whereby colors are used to suggest emotion.
Van Gogh´s passion for nighttime is evident in the Starry Night painting, where the powerful sky sits above the quiet town. It seems that van Gogh is contrasting life and death with luminous stars and a gloomy, peaceful village. The main light sources are the bright stars and crescent moon.
There are various interpretations of Starry Night and one is that this canvas depicts hope. It seems that van Gogh was showing that even with a dark night such as this it is still possible to see light in the windows of the houses. Furthermore, with shining stars filling the sky, there is always light to guide you. It seems that van Gogh was finally being cured of his illness and had essentially found his heaven. He also knew that in death he would be at peace and further portrays this by using bold colors in the Starry Night painting.In a letter to his brother, Theo, van Gogh comments: "I should not be surprised if you liked the Starry Night and the Ploughed Fields, there is a greater quiet about them than in the other canvases. " Later in the letter he makes reference to Leo Tolstoys book My Religion and its lack of belief in resurrection. Such fleeting mentions of religion echoed van Goghs feelings towards the subject at this time; he could neither forget it nor totally accept it. Despite this, his use of the word 'quiet' and reference to Tolstoys book indicates that the night sky made him feel calm and brought to mind eternity.Starry Night shows the vast power of nature and the church spire and cypress tree - representing man and nature - both point to the heavens.
In Starry Night van Gogh´s unique, thick brush strokes are very much obvious and it´s possible that his severe attacks further dramatized his brush work. However, there is a consistency to his technique that adds even more depth as well as a rich texture to this work of art.
Starry Night is often considered to be Van Gogh's pinnacle achievement. Unlike most of his works, Starry Night was painted from memory, and not out in the landscape. The emphasis on interior, emotional life is clear in his swirling, tumultuous depiction of the sky - a radical departure from his previous, more naturalistic landscapes. Here, Van Gogh followed a strict principal of structure and composition in which the forms are distributed across the surface of the canvas in an exact order to create balance and tension amidst the swirling torsion of the cypress trees and the night sky. The result is a landscape rendered through curves and lines, its seeming chaos subverted by a rigorous formal arrangement. Evocative of the spirituality Van Gogh found in nature, Starry Night is famous for advancing the act of painting beyond the representation of the physical world.
Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art