Analysis of Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night


Starry Night

STARRY NIGHT van Gogh, Vincent

Starry Night represents all the drama of a man anxious of communication and integration into nature. The previous year, in Arles, Vincent had a terrible argument with his best friend, Gaugin. As an act of desperation he cut off his right ear. After this horrible time in his life, the depression came back and he was sent to a psychiatric hospital at the request of his neighbours in Arles. It was at that time, that he painted other nocturnal pictures like The Night Café, Starry Night over the Rhone and many others.Analysis of Van Gogh’s Starry Night: Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh is oil on canvas, 73 x 92 cm. Exposed in the Modern Art Museum of New York. Painted in Saint Rémy in June 1889. Starry Night by Van Gogh was painted at the height of his production and his passion for life. It’s a nocturnal picture, painted while he was staying at the psychiatric hospital of Saint Remy-of-Provence. The real drama of this painting is that the artist is not content to commune with nature to understand and paint his subject, but battles to enter into the very essence of the natural world so that his brushes can tell us the exquisitely haunting story from within.

To paint at night, he hung candles around the brim of his hat, and around the picture canvas, so that he can see what he is painting. He is the first artist to directly paint these nocturnal scenes at night. This need to connect with nature is something he inherited from the impressionists in Paris. The important point here is his passion for the dark night. In times when street lighting was at a minimum (just gas light) and most of the light would come from the houses in the village, the night was really dark.

The question is obvious – what was going on inside the tormented soul of the artist to make him want to escape into the endless black night? Starry Night reflects the anguish of the artist. The energetic strokes, the vibrant colours of the stars against the dark blues and blacks of the night reflect the need of a desperate man for hope in the middle of the “black night”. Starry Night is a fight between a man and his anxiety. A scream for hope, light and love.

The structure and composition of Starry Night

The structure and composition of Starry Night: Van Gogh followed the stricter principal of structure and composition in Starry Night. The order of the internal elements of the painting and the distribution is perfect. The smaller part of the picture’s elements are points, that together complement each other and became a whole image. In Starry Night and some other paintings of Van Gogh, these elements are connected so that winding lines are transformed into stars in the dark sky, energetic strokes in the ends of the cypress, curved surfaces created mountain crests, and geometric forms reflected the architecture of the place. The result of all these details is a Starry Night perceived through curves and lines with apparently delirious colours, although very well meditated. The contours were important for Van Gogh. Even when the impressionists lose the contours in their paintings, he kept them in his impressionist period to draw and limit the object in his pictures.

Thoughts of a guest writer

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.

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