With a well-known and universally adored body of work, Vincent van Gogh is arguably one of the most iconic artists of all time. As a pioneering Post-Impressionist figure, Van Gogh paved the way for other avant-garde artists and played a key role in the evolution of modern art.
Among his many world-famous paintings, The Starry Night (1889), a piece produced late in the artist’s exceptionally short career, has a particularly important place in art history. To understand its profound impact, one must explore the context, content, and influence of this magical masterpiece.
History of The Starry Night
On top of his revolutionary oeuvre, Vincent van Gogh is known for his profound struggles with mental illness. Born in 1853, the artist was only 37 years old when he died of a possibly self-inflicted gunshot wound while being voluntarily treated at a mental health facility in the South of France.
While committed, he completed an unprecedented amount of artwork. Eventually, the 150 pieces produced during this time would be compiled into the Saint-Paul Asylum, Saint-Rémy series, which includes important canvases like his Self-Portrait with a Bandaged Ear, The Irises, Wheat Field with Crows (his last painting), and Starry Night Over the Rhône—a piece that undoubtedly inspired The Starry Night.
Van Gogh painted Starry Night Over the Rhône in 1888—just one year before he completed The Starry Night. During this time, he was living in Arles, an idyllic French commune. Though rendered in vibrant brushstrokes and expressive color, the scene is calm; “two colorful figurines of lovers in the foreground” are the only people present in the painting, and the star-filled sky evokes a feeling of serenity.
Both Starry Night Over the Rhône and The Starry Night feature similar subject matter and are rendered in van Gogh’s signature style. However, they drastically differ in context. Starry Night Over the Rhône was painted near van Gogh’s charming home in Arles; the sweeping view featured in The Starry Night was captured from his window in the asylum.
While committed, van Gogh painted this panorama on several occasions. The Starry Night, however, is the only nocturnal study of the view. Thus, in addition to descriptions evident in the myriad of letters he wrote to his brother, Theo, it offers a rare nighttime glimpse into what the artist saw while in isolation. “Through the iron-barred window I can make out a square of wheat in an enclosure,” he wrote in May of 1889, “above which in the morning I see the sun rise in its glory.”
Rendered in the artist’s characteristic, Post-Impressionist style, The Starry Night features short, painterly brushstrokes, an artificial color palette, and a focus on luminescence. This artistic approach is particularly evident in the sky, which is composed of a thickly-applied tonal collection of blue and gold hues.
The ethereal painting’s balanced composition is composed of celestial swirls, stylized stars, a radiating moon, an idyllic village, and a sky-high cypress tree. While the depiction is based on his real-life view of the village, van Gogh took some liberties when painting it. A notable fact, as the Dutch artist was known for faithfully painting what he saw before him.
The sky of The Starry Night is the most dream-like element to the composition. There, van Gogh seems to convey turbulent emotion, particularly in the swirls that move across the canvas. In the same way, the hamlet, including the prominent church spire (which is thought to be inspired by the architecture of his home in the Netherlands) is also entirely imagined.
Additionally, as van Gogh painted this piece from his room in the asylum, he opted to remove the prison-like bars from his window—illustrating his idealized approach to the painting and, perhaps, his longing to be free.
According to his letters to Theo, van Gogh largely regarded The Starry Night as a “failure”—alluding in particular to the imagined portions of it, which were such a departure from his usual way of painting.
Even so, the painting is often seen as having great emotional depth. For example, unlike many of the paintings van Gogh was producing at the time, the color palette of The Starry Night is significantly darker, even recalling some of his first pictorial attempts. Art historians commonly attribute this to his depressive state. Yet, in spite of the nighttime blues, van Gogh includes bright yellow-white stars and a crescent moon.
Although at this point van Gogh had largely given up his religious beliefs, he carried a deep love for the natural world, wherein he found solace. “Hope is in the stars,” the artist wrote to his brother. For this reason, The Starry Night painting is often interpreted as having a hopeful message.