The Starry Night

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia - View original article

The Starry Night
A painting of a scene at night with 11 swirly stars and a bright yellow crescent moon. In the background there are hills, in the middle ground there is a moonlit town with a church that has an elongated steeple, and in the foreground there is the dark green silhouette of a cypress tree.
ArtistVincent van Gogh
CatalogueF612; JH1731[1]
TypeOil on canvas
Dimensions73.7 cm × 92.1 cm (29 in × 36 14 in)
LocationMuseum of Modern Art, New York City
Jump to: navigation, search
The Starry Night
A painting of a scene at night with 11 swirly stars and a bright yellow crescent moon. In the background there are hills, in the middle ground there is a moonlit town with a church that has an elongated steeple, and in the foreground there is the dark green silhouette of a cypress tree.
ArtistVincent van Gogh
CatalogueF612; JH1731[1]
TypeOil on canvas
Dimensions73.7 cm × 92.1 cm (29 in × 36 14 in)
LocationMuseum of Modern Art, New York City

Starry Night (Dutch: De sterrennacht) is a painting by the Dutch post-impressionist artist Vincent van Gogh. Painted in June 1889, it depicts the view outside of his sanitarium room window at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence (located in southern France) at night, although it was painted from memory during the day. It has been in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, part of the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest, since 1941. The painting is among Van Gogh's most well-known works and marks a decisive turn towards greater imaginative freedom in his art.[2]


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?[2]

Starry Night Over the Rhone, 1888, oil on canvas

In September 1888, before his December breakdown that resulted in his hospitalisation in Arles, he painted Starry Night Over the Rhone. Working by night under a gas lamp, Van Gogh painted this work directly from nature. "It does me good to do what's difficult, "Van Gogh wrote, "That doesn’t stop me having a tremendous need for, shall I say the word—for religion—so I go outside at night to paint the stars."[3]

In May 1889, Van Gogh decided to enter the asylum at Saint-Rémy, where he stayed for the next year. His time there was very productive, although interrupted by incapacitating nervous attacks.[4] Inspired by the landscape surrounding the asylum, he painted Starry Night in June 1889. Unlike the earlier Starry Night Over the Rhone, the new night scene was painted in daylight, from memory. In mid-September 1889, following a heavy crisis which lasted from mid-July to the last days of August, he thought to include Starry Night in the next batch of works to be sent to his brother, Theo, in Paris.[5] In order to reduce the shipping costs, he withheld three of the studies, including Starry Night. These three went to Paris with the shipment that followed.[6] When Theo did not immediately report its arrival, Vincent inquired again and finally received Theo's commentary on his recent work.[7][8]

Subject matter[edit]

The center part shows the village of Saint-Rémy under a swirling sky, in a view from the asylum towards north. The Alpilles far to the right fit to this view, but there is little rapport of the actual scene with the intermediary hills which seem to be derived from a different part of the surroundings, south of the asylum. The cypress tree to the left was added into the composition.[9] Of note is the fact Van Gogh had already, during his time in Arles, repositioned Ursa Major from the north to the south in his painting Starry Night Over the Rhone.

In a letter to his brother Theo, Van Gogh wrote of it:[10][11]

"At last I have a landscape with olive trees, and also a new study of a starry sky. ... It’s not a return to the romantic or to religious ideas, no. However, by going the way of Delacroix, more than it seems, by color and a more determined drawing than trompe-l’oeil precision, one might express a country nature that is purer than the suburbs, the bars of Paris."

Aims and ends[edit]

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.[12][13]

Van Gogh was not so happy with the painting. In a letter to his brother Theo from Saint-Rémy he wrote:[5]

The first four canvases are studies without the effect of a whole that the others have . . . The olives with white clouds and background of mountains, also the moonrise and the night effect, these are exaggerations from the point of view of arrangement, their lines are warped as that of old wood.

Later in this letter, Vincent referred once more to the painting:

In all this batch I think nothing at all good save the field of wheat, the mountain, the orchard, the olives with the blue hills and the portrait and the entrance to the Quarry, and the rest says nothing to me, because it lacks individual intention and feeling in the lines. Where these lines are close and deliberate it begins to be a picture, even if it is exaggerated. That is a little what Bernard and Gauguin feel, they do not ask the correct shape of a tree at all, but they insist absolutely that one can say if the shape is round or square - and my word, they are right, exasperated as they are by certain people's photographic and empty perfection. Certainly they will not ask the correct tone of the mountains, but they will say: In the Name of God, the mountains were blue, were they? Then chuck on some blue and don't go telling me that it was a blue rather like this or that, it was blue, wasn't it? Good - make them blue and it's enough! Gauguin is sometimes like a genius when he explains this, but as for the genius Gauguin has, he is very timid about showing it, and it is touching the way he likes to say something really useful to the young. How strange he is all the same.


The Starry Night (detail)

Perhaps no other painting in Western Art has enjoyed such a varying array of intriguing interpretations. Academic theories tend towards two schools: the literal and the literary. The literal includes both he painted what he saw and the hallucinatory genius arguments (as an individual's hallucinations are indistinguishable from real life) while the literary suggest that inspiration blossomed from some written source; most often cited for van Gogh's Starry Night are The Bible, Walt Whitman and Victor Hugo.

Legendary 20th century art historian Albert Boime is generally credited[14] with the best literal theory by proving, in conjunction with three Astronomer colleagues at UCLA[15] the position of the stars from van Gogh's window in the asylum at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence at 4 a.m. on June 19, 1889, the day van Gogh wrote his brother that he had completed the painting.[16] In a 1985 lecture to the American Astronomical Society, Boime compared the positions of the moon and Venus that night and showed that they corresponded to the positions of the celestial objects in the painting.[14] While Boime and his lead astronomer, Charles Whitney agreed the large star above the horizon is the Morning Star, they failed to agree on the arrangement of the other stars. Boime claimed they constituted the constellation of Aries, while Whitney argued it was Cygnus.[17] Boime further attempted to make the argument that van Gogh had likely seen an image of a spiral galaxy from Camille Flammarion's Astronomie populaire, in an attempt to explain the existence of van Gogh's celestial spiral jetty. In his 800-plus existing letters, however, van Gogh makes no mention of ever reading Flammarion.[18]

As to the leading literary theories: those about The Bible range from van Gogh painting a passage out of Genesis 37 describing a dream of Joseph[19] to an apocalyptic depiction out of the twelfth book of Revelation[20] to a sublimated Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane;[17] while those from Whitman attempt to correlate the painting's poetic vision within Song of Myself;[21] and (what has been mistakenly attributed to Hugo's Les Miserables)[22] as an inspired depiction of God as a lighthouse in eclipse.[20]

This bevy of interpretations has helped keep van Gogh's Starry Night firmly within the discussions and lively debates of both public and academic art history.

Recent commentaries[edit]

Sketch of the Whirlpool Galaxy by Lord Rosse in 1845, 44 years before Van Gogh's painting

Popular culture[edit]

"Vincent" is a song by Don McLean written as a tribute to Vincent van Gogh.

The painting is referenced many times in the episode of BBCs Doctor Who, "Vincent and the Doctor".

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Brooks, D. "Starry Night". The Vincent van Gogh Gallery, endorsed by Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. David Brooks (self-published). Retrieved 19 February 2012. 
  2. ^ a b Lieberman, William S. (1980). Modern masters: European paintings from the Museum of Modern Art. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art. p. 37. ISBN 0870992465
  3. ^ "To Theo van Gogh. Arles, on or about Saturday, 29 September 1888". Vincent van Gogh: The Letters. Van Gogh Museum. Retrieved 19 February 2012. 
  4. ^ Gogh, Vincent van, and Bruce Bernard (2000). Vincent by himself. London: Little, Brown. p. 13. ISBN 0316855065
  5. ^ a b Letter, 607
  6. ^ Letter, 608
  7. ^ Letter 609
  8. ^ Letter, T19
  9. ^ The Museum of Modern Art maintains the traditional identification of a cypress tree.
  10. ^ "To Theo van Gogh. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, on or about Tuesday, 18 June 1889". Vincent van Gogh: The Letters. Van Gogh Museum. Retrieved 19 February 2012. 
  11. ^ Hulsker, Jan (1986). The Complete Van Gogh: Paintings, Drawings, Sketches. Random House. p. 396. ISBN 0-517-44867-X. 
  12. ^ The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute: Cypresses in Starry Night in the Lost Art digital collection. Retrieved 3 June 2012.
  13. ^ Richard Boudreaux: "Ex-Soviet Officer Tried to Return Art Found in Cellar", Los Angeles Times 20 March 1995, retrieved 3 June 2012.
  14. ^ a b Rourke, Mary. "Albert Boime dies at 75; leading art historian taught at UCLA for 30 years", Los Angeles Times, October 23, 2008. Accessed November 2, 2008.
  15. ^ Boime, Albert, Starry Nights: A History of Matter and a Matter of History, from Arts Magazine, December 1984
  16. ^ See, Letter 782
  17. ^ a b Soth, Lauren, Van Gogh's Agony, from The Art Bulletin, June, 1986, number 2
  18. ^ See, Advanced Search "Flammarion"
  19. ^ Loevgren, Sven, The Genesis of Modernism: Seurat, Gauguin, van Gogh, & French Symbolism in the 1880s, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1971
  20. ^ a b Schapiro, Meyer, Modern Art: 19th and 20th Centuries, George Braziller, New York, 1978
  21. ^ Layman, Lewis. Echoes of Walt Whitman's 'Bare-Bosom'd Night' in Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night, American Notes and Queries, 22 (March/April 1984), p. 105-109
  22. ^ See, Letter 300, note 10
  23. ^ Hubble/ESA photo release
  24. ^, Darkness Was Muse for a Master of Light


External links[edit]