Art of the day: ‘The Starry Night’ by Vincent Van Gogh

Vincent Van Gogh is definitely one of my favorite artists and the one I feel I can relate to the most. Apart from sharing the love for a bit exaggerated, magical colors and shapes, we unite on battling the same monsters. Depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, constant self-doubt and lack of confidence in his abilities and his works. I have experienced very similar feelings and fears since my adolescent years and battled them with varied success over the years. But, this post is not going to be about depression or sadness, on a contrary, there is a positive point I want to make.

I have done extensive research on the painting, the artist, his life, vision and meaning behind the painting and I want to bring the most interesting facts, quotes, and bits and pieces of information I found across many different sources.

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Type Oil on canvas Dimensions 73.7 cm × 92.1 cm (29 in × 36 1⁄4 in) Location Museum of Modern Art, New York City

Just as Van Gogh, I’ve always been attracted to the night. To him night was ‘more alive than the day’ and was the time of creativity, reflection and meditation after a day of activity and it brought with it a feeling of security and comfort. It was also kind of metaphor for the cycle of life. And he linked this with the changing of the seasons. However, van Gogh was aware that darkness could also conjure up feelings of loneliness and anguish.

The night sky  is mesmerizing. It looks as the stars in the painting are swirling and moving within it’s frame. You feel captured in this magical place and you don’t want to leave. ‘Starry night’ is the mixture of imagination and reality. While the village and location of the stars in the sky might reflect what he really saw from his window at a hospital in Saint Rémy, the church resembles with his memories of his motherland, the Netherlands.

When he looked at the night sky, he wrote to his brotherTheo in August 1888, he saw “the mysterious brightness of a pale star in the infinite.”
As he wrote to his sister Willemien van Gogh from Arles, “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 labouring the point, it’s clear to paint a starry sky it’s not nearly enough to put white spots on blue-black.” (678, 14 September 1888)
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In a letter written to Émile Bernard in April 1888, Van Gogh expressed his desire to paint the night sky, and questioned whether he could achieve his intention by painting from nature as the Impressionists did:

The imagination is certainly a faculty which we must develop and it alone can bring us to creation of a more exalting and consoling nature … A star-spangled sky, for instance, that’s a thing I would like to try to do … But how can I manage unless I make up my mind to work … from imagination?

In Arles, in 1888 and 1889, van Gogh’s paintings took on a mystical, dreamlike quality. Straight lines became wavy, colors intensified, thick paint became thicker, sometimes squeezed straight onto the canvas from the tube. Some of these changes were later taken as a sign of his madness, and even van Gogh feared that “some of my pictures certainly show traces of having been painted by a sick man.” But there was premeditation and technique behind these distortions, as he tried to put a sense of life’s mysteries into paint. In a letter to Wil, he explained that “the bizarre lines, purposely selected and multiplied, meandering all through the picture, may fail to give the garden a vulgar resemblance, but may present it to our minds as seen in a dream, depicting its character, and at the same time stranger than it is in reality.”

The artist’s focus on the relationship between dreams and reality—and life and death—had a profound meaning for him, as he had confided to Theo in a letter a year before his first crisis in Arles. “Looking at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots representing towns and villages on a map. Why, I ask myself, shouldn’t the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France? Just as we take the train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star.”
“And these trees that are drawn almost like flames of fire very much allude to Van Gogh’s ongoing concern with afterlife, with eternity, with death, and with all these different forces, which indeed he does associate with the night.”

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 darkness it is still possible to see light in the windows of the houses, and 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.

 

The drawing Cypresses in Starry Night, a reed pen study executed by Van Gogh after the painting in 1889. Originally held at Kunsthalle Bremen, today part of the disputed Baldin Collection
The drawing Cypresses in Starry Night, a reed pen study executed by Van Gogh after the painting in 1889. Originally held at Kunsthalle Bremen, today part of the disputed Baldin Collection

Another popular theory is about the biblical meaning behind the ‘Starry Night’.

Perhaps the real reason why the Van Gogh painting is so famous and appreciated today is not due to the negative emotions that may have initially inspired the artwork, but the strong feelings of hope Van Gogh conveys through the bright lights of the stars shining down over the dark landscape at night. In 1888, Van Gogh wrote a personal letter in which he described “a great starlit vault of heaven…one can only call God.” With a theologian for an uncle, Van Gogh himself was also religious, even serving as a missionary in his younger days. Many art scholars believe there is a hidden religious meaning to Starry Night. In the painting, the moon and stars in the night sky are surrounded by large halos of light while a church steeple stands out above the smaller, less detailed buildings in the town below. In fact, some art critics find a biblical meaning in the number of stars painted in Starry Night that alludes to specific Bible verse in Genesis.

Then he dreamed still another dream and told it to his brothers, saying, “Look, I have dreamed another dream. And this time, the sun, the moon and the eleven stars bowed down to me.” Genesis 37:9

 

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In a letter to his brother, Theo, van Gogh refers to Leo Tolstoy´s book My Religion and its lack of belief in resurrection. His use of the word ‘quiet’ and reference to Tolstoy´s book indicates that the night sky made him feel calm and brought to mind eternity.

Why did Van Gogh paint exactly 11 stars? By painting exactly eleven stars in the Starry Night painting, Vincent Van Gogh might have been directly referencing Genesis 37:9, a key verse in the biblical account of Joseph, a “dreamer” and an outcast in the company of his eleven older brothers. It isn’t hard to see why Van Gogh might have identified with Joseph in the Bible. In the Bible, Joseph was thrown into a pit, sold into slavery, and underwent years of imprisonment, much like Van Gogh did the last years of his life in the Arles asylum. No matter what Joseph did he could not receive the acceptance or respect of his 11 older brothers. Likewise, despite his best efforts, as an artist Van Gogh failed to receive the recognition of art critics of his day.

Van Gogh considered his now-iconic The Starry Night, which he painted from his barred window at Saint-Rémy, a failed attempt at abstraction. Before leaving Saint-Rémy, he wrote to Émile Bernard: “I have been slaving away on nature the whole year, hardly thinking of impressionism or of this, that and the other. And yet, once again I let myself go reaching for stars that are too big—a new failure—and I have had enough of it.”

Theo liked the painting but was worried. He wrote Vincent that “the expression of your thoughts on nature and living creatures shows how strongly you are attached to them. But how your brain must have labored, and how you have risked everything….” Vincent didn’t live to know that in his reaching for the stars, he had created a masterpiece.

While Van Gogh died a poor and disrespected artist, he is now one of the most famous and reproduced painters today. Within the madness, there was genius.

“It is inspiring to see how a man so plagued by sorrow and despair could turn his inner battles into glowing, vibrant canvases that still speak a message of hope and joy more than 100 years later”

Following the recent news on Robbin Williams death, I spent a lot of time thinking about how many lives could have been saved, how many wonderful things could have been created, if they did find the strength to say to themselves: “I am strong. I am valuable. I am worthy”. If only they knew the impact they have on the people around them, on the world and the Universe. If only they could see their problems from the perspective of eternal starry night sky. If only there was a family member or a friend holding their hand that would tell them: “I care for you. You are loved.”

If you came across this post and you’re battling depression and anxiety, I want you to know that I love you and you’re not lonely.  While I’m battling my own hardships, I understand what you’re going through and you can reach me out to vent, to cry, to smile and laugh and while I’m no specialist, I will hold your hand and give you all the support I can give. My e-mail is 1happyblog@outlook.com.

If you have a family member, a friend or anybody else suffering from mental disorders, please don’t just ignore them. A lot of times we are seen as people with ‘personal weaknesses’ or ‘drowned in self-pity’ and our condition is not taken seriously. There are times when we cannot help ourselves and if we could, do you really think that we would stay depressed and miserable? Sometimes, a small gesture, a nice word or just being by our side, can mean the world. Spread some love and I’m sure it will come back to you multiplied.

For more inspiration, I urge you to watch Doctor Who: ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ (Season 5, Episode 10). It literally brought tears to my eyes.

I’m going to leave you with a tribute to Vincent, a song called ‘Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)’ by Don McLean.

“Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)”

Starry, starry night
Paint your palette blue and gray
Look out on a summer’s day
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul

Shadows on the hills
Sketch the trees and the daffodils
Catch the breeze and the winter chills
In colors on the snowy linen land

Now I understand
What you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free

They would not listen, they did not know how
Perhaps they’ll listen now

Starry, starry night
Flaming flowers that brightly blaze
Swirling clouds in violet haze
Reflect in Vincent’s eyes of china blue

Colors changing hue
Morning fields of amber grain
Weathered faces lined in pain
Are soothed beneath the artist’s loving hand

Now I understand
What you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free

They would not listen, they did not know how
Perhaps they’ll listen now

For they could not love you
But still your love was true
And when no hope was left in sight
On that starry, starry night

You took your life, as lovers often do
But I could’ve told you Vincent
This world was never meant for
One as beautiful as you

Starry, starry night
Portraits hung in empty halls
Frame-less heads on nameless walls
With eyes that watch the world and can’t forget

Like the strangers that you’ve met
The ragged men in ragged clothes
The silver thorn of bloody rose
Lie crushed and broken on the virgin snow

Now I think I know
What you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free

They would not listen, they’re not listening still
Perhaps they never will

 

Beautiful soul, Vincent, I know I’ll meet you one day somewhere across the Universe and we’ll paint the sky purple and yellow.

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9 thoughts on “Art of the day: ‘The Starry Night’ by Vincent Van Gogh

  1. A Beautiful, beautiful post. I’ve always loved Van Gogh’s art, especially his “starry night” – you did great research on this! I feel a connection with so many of the amazing and gifted artists throughout the impressionist movement. So many brilliant, creative, struggling minds of the new revolution. I can’t wait to meet Mozart someday.
    I too am drawn to the night. It is when I feel most awake and alive and my creative juices really get churning. I can stay up for hours on end and never feel sleepy – and then of course I crash when the morning comes. Not. Healthy! It’s a double edged sword. Getting a good night’s sleep is very critical for our health, especially for those of us who struggle with mood disorders, depression, bipolar, etc. It’s such a delicate dance. Getting one night “off” schedule can set us back for a week or more with our mental health. You are not alone. You are a brilliant star, and God has a marvelous, happy plan for your life. Truly. I believe we are all meant for greatness. Like Vincent Van Gogh, if only we could see ourselves for who we really are! I couldn’t find a reference to where you live, but if you are in the USA, please visit NAMI.org and reach out to them. They will connect you to your local network. They have so many free resources, and such good support groups! It’s a brilliant organization and I wish I had known about them when I was your age. It would have saved me from so much suffering alone. Things do get better. Things especially rapidly improve when we realize it’s OK to need help and to ask for help from the right sources. Talking about how we feel, and validating each other is very healing. Life is so worth living! It’s worth living peacefully within our skin. It’s our right to have joy and peace, and it is truly possible to be a creative being and still at peace in our souls. Life isn’t perfect of course. There will always be ups and downs, but we don’t have to be riding out huge waves of emotions and feeling pain and confusion all of the time. There’s help. Reach out! Claim it! You deserve the best. ❤

    • Thank you so very much!!! Your words felt like a healing balm for the wounds of my soul! 🙂 You are so sweet and kind!

      I had a good rest and got a good night’s sleep the last couple of days, so today I feel much better and calmer and as much as I enjoy buzzing with ideas and being full of energy, I agree with you that rest is so important for mental health and I pray for more days like this when I feel balanced and centered.

      Unfortunately, I don’t live in US. I’d love to reach out for Nami or get a local help, but ‘mental health’ is not a very popular subject in our country. Currently, I rely on prayer, meditation, having a schedule and reading about mental health on Internet. It all helps and I hope that I can heal myself or that the God will provide the source to help me heal, if required. Some days it gets hard, but I hope that I can find strength to see the stars in the sky and hold on to what’s good in my life.

      You’re so right! If only we could see ourselves for who we really are! In the episode of Doctor Who, that I mentioned in my post, Vincent is given a chance to travel in time to the present days and see his works in a museum and then he hears a museum curator talk about how wonderful his works are and how great of an artist he is and Vincent’s eyes are full of tears of joy.

      I remember reading in one of the letters to his brother, Vincent mentioned a suicide, but only as a thought and then he moved away from it knowing that he would only regret all of the paintings he could have painted. I know that I am connected to creative source and there is so much potential energy waiting to be released. I just need to get better control and use of my emotions.

      In your post, you described your feelings while you first started to take your medication – you mentioned that you were afraid that your creativity will disappear. Now, that you won your battles and you live a happy and healthy life, do you feel that your creativity levels are the same?

      Thank you very much for your help and support and I’m wishing you even more blessings and peace in your life! 🙂

  2. Very interesting post; as you can tell I also find van Gogh a very interesting artist and his work is as beautiful as it is sad and tragic. Thank you for liking and reading my post! Since I’ve read your ‘About’ page, I see that are interest are fairly similar; I enjoy writing, reading, drawing, painting and I love art and fashion too!

  3. Oh…what a beautiful song. I did a lot of research on Van Gogh for a short story I wrote. He was an inspiring person, and people who don’t read his words don’t understand when I say this. He loved his art so much, and the Starry Night will never die. He had a sad life, but I still consider him one of my heroes. Great post, thanks for this! 🙂

    • Oh thank you! You’re so sweet and kind! 🙂 He is my hero too! And I absolutely agree with you, if you read his letters, if you find out about his life and his struggles, you start to appreciate his art and love him anymore! I’m glad you enjoyed the post! 🙂

  4. Lovely post! I had the opportunity to visit the Van Gogh museum two weeks ago – I’ve always loved his paintings. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge. And I agree – the parallel between Vincent and Robin is all too painful. Two lights in the starry night who didn’t think they shone brightly enough.

    • Thank you for stopping by and for your sweet words! 🙂

      It is wonderful that you got to see paintings in Van Gogh’s museum in Amsterdam – they have the biggest collection! I’m looking forward to see it too, hopefully in autumn 🙂

      I love how beautifully you said it about two lights of Vincent and Robin, who didn’t think they shine bright enough, but what gives me hope is that I know that their light sparked the light and inspiration in me and millions of others and in creations of future generations their spirits will live forever! 🙂

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