Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh stands as the quintessential symbol of the tortured artist. Haunted by mental problems throughout his life, his well-being deteriorated further after a confrontation with a friend, Paul Gauguin. During this heated argument, van Gogh experienced a breakdown and famously severed a part of his own ear with a razor.
Several months after the incident, in May 1889, Vincent van Gogh voluntarily admitted himself to the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum in Saint-Rémy, France. His stay aimed at recovering from a sequence of breakdowns under the supervision of medical professionals. However, the artist also devised his own treatment plan: to embrace nature and immerse himself more profoundly in his art.
Vincent van Gogh. Self-portrait, 1889. Oil on canvas, 26 in × 21 in (65 cm × 54 cm). Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
As an artist who favored working through direct observation, van Gogh found himself constrained by the subjects available to him. These included self-portraits, views from his studio window, and the encompassing countryside that he could explore accompanied by a chaperone.
Despite these subject limitations, van Gogh’s artistic style knew no bounds. He embarked on ventures of portraying diverse weather and the ever-shifting play of light. Nighttime held a particular fascination for van Gogh, as indicated in a letter to his brother Theo:
I often find myself thinking that the night possesses a vitality and richness of color that surpasses even that of daytime…
While at the asylum, he engaged in alternating bursts of productivity and episodes of despair. Throughout his 12-month residency, Van Gogh created a prolific number of works comprising over a hundred paintings. Among these notable pieces are his renowned blue self-portrait, the captivating Irises, and his magnum opus, The Starry Night.
Vincent van Gogh. The Starry Night, 1889. Oil on canvas, 29.01 in × 36.26 in (73.7 cm × 92.1 cm). Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Van Gogh’s night sky is like a swirling sea of energy. Underneath the bursting stars, the village rests in calmness. The flamelike cypress, a tree that is traditionally associated with graveyards and sadness, bridges the land and sky.
The cypress tree almost seems to loom over the peaceful town. It reaches nearly the top of the painting, seen as a connection between life (the village and the land) and death (the sky). But death didn’t frighten van Gogh.
Looking at the stars always makes me dream. 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.
Created in the artist’s distinctive Post-Impressionist manner, The Starry Night showcases brief and loose brushstrokes, an artificial color palette, and a strong emphasis on luminosity. This artistic technique is especially evident in the sky with its thick layers of rich blue and gold tones.
The Starry Night, detail.
The vibrant hues within The Starry Night evoke emotions more than reality. While there’s been debate about whether Van Gogh’s unusual color choices in his later works were influenced by potential lead poisoning, it’s more plausible that he was capturing the night sky in his own unique way.
The painting was among van Gogh’s later creations, completed a year before he tragically took his life at 37 years. Although Van Gogh managed to sell just one painting during his lifetime, The Starry Night now stands as a modern art icon, akin to the Mona Lisa of our time. Just as Leonardo da Vinci embodied a Renaissance ideal of calm and self-possession, Van Gogh captured the essence of our age—marked by isolation and ambiguity.
For my part, I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.
Words of wisdom
“I dream of painting and then I paint my dream.” ―Vincent van Gogh
“The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts.” ―Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
“Nothing in the world is ever completely wrong. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.” ―Paulo Coelho, Brida
“Kindness is a language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” ―Mark Twain