A Night of Light - Van Gogh's The Starry Night, 1889
By Elizabeth Harding
"…A kind of painting giving greater consolation." In Vincent van Gogh's own words we find a succinct and simple description of "The Starry Night," probably his most famous work.
Philosophers, art historians, musicologists and mystics have been known to choose van Gogh's "Starry Night" as an example of artwork that depicts on canvas the music of the spheres. This painting, as very few others, has a universal impact on the audience that might be compared to the effect Handle's"Messiah" has, an effect that creates the immediate need to rise up in accord, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
Why this particular piece of work is so powerful remains a source of speculation. Vincent's own churning state of mind and spirit, displayed so clearly and fitfully for any viewer to witness, is probably as good an explanation as any. During his life, he was branded as insane, and indeed, he voluntarily went into an asylum to try to find some peace toward the end. His was a spirit so open and vulnerable, and a mind so beleaguered, that he likely could not have hid his own internal chaos from his viewers even if he tried.
What strikes us immediately is the juxtaposition of light and dark. In fact, it seems there is more brightness in this nightscape than darkness. The characteristic van Gogh swirls of pigment are blatant and appealing, imbuing the canvas with movement and energy. Repeated curving patterns swing from the landscape into the sky and back again, tying the picture together with the force of this artist's brush and will.
As to the style and composition of this famous piece, the techniques, while Vincent's own, are superficially unpolished. The artist himself uses the word "exaggerations" to describe the hills; "warped," he calls them, "as in old woodcuts." The undeniable impression of unity that the painting imparts, however, belies its apparent simplicity.
The textured hills lead the eye into the small town on the bottom right quadrant, and thence to the dominating cypress, giving the foreground in a bold dark green, and on into a sky filled with fireworks of stars, moons and the sun itself. Swirls fitted into more swirls in the sky give way to round bowls of color that are the heaven's lights, greater and grander in van Gogh's vision of things than reality. A tiny steepled church in the bottom center echoes the cypress and confirms an upward reach of the earthly into the sky and beyond.
Vincent painted "The Starry Night" outside the asylum at Saint-Rémy, just one month after entering the institution. It was complete in just three days, one of 150 powerful canvases he produced during that year in the hospital. His time there was a concentrated effort to find light in darkness, not only in his soul, but on canvas. "The Starry Night" reflects all of his churning spirit in a frozen moment of perfect beauty, imparting joy to the viewer, though the artist was in chaos.
Van Gogh sought to express his spirit, and express it he did, in formidable works that speak to humanity in a clear voice on a gut level, such as "The Potato Eaters," "Vincent's Room," and his "Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear." His works that do not include figures or faces, such as "The Starry Night," "Sunflowers" or "Night Café," speak to us just as clearly as his beloved portraits do. Their impact remains a legacy from a unique spirit that lives on in pure form, through his paintings.
About the Author
Visit the Life of Van Gogh website for more information on Van Gogh paintings, or to get out own Biography of Vincent Van Gogh.
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| Some other articles by Elizabeth Harding|
|Analysis of Self-Portraits of Vincent van Gogh|
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