Starry Night, a product of Vincent van Gogh’s 1889 stay in the asylum of Saint-Remy-de-Provence, is an immortal masterpiece. It is still as relevant, as popular, and as spellbinding as ever. Art classes wrap lectures around it, tourists travel to see it, and it is reprinted in numerous forms. One can find it on coasters, commemorative plates, and coffee mugs. There are various recreations where the tree has been replaced with Batman, or the quaint little village is being attacked by an AT-AT. It has been and continues to remain an icon. But for Van Gogh it was just the lovely view that greeted him outside his bedroom window. That view is change.
The first thing everyone notices when looking at this piece is the sky, but that is because the use of color is meant to draw your eyes to it. Van Gogh uses a mixture of white and yellow to create spirals, a feeling that the whole sky is an ocean and the stars are swimming in it. It’s like a storm, moving and spinning across the canvas. The vivid use of color is truly post-impressionist flair, substituting the pitch black found in the real world, for a rich blue found only in imagination. But the blue does not dominate the painting, it only covers it. The use of orange found around the stars and other elements of the night sky provides balance, while a smattering of green in different hues creates diversity. The landscape at the bottom reflects the flurry of color found in the sky, with points of yellow peeping through the open windows, and a sash of red adorning the church.
These colors are meant to show emotion, the same emotions Van Gogh must have felt as she stared out his window at the majesty before him. Many see these emotions as conflicting as the painting itself is a contradiction, with a joyful and bright sky hanging over a gloomy village below. This gloom is created by two things, Gogh’s use of light, and his use of lines. Though the sky may swirl, the village is made up of lines. Gogh used two different types of brush strokes here to create contrast. Also, the only source of light comes from the bright pools of yellow that represent the stars. The village below looks like a shadow in comparison, but not because it is dark, but because there is hardly any light. Although Van Gogh uses the same blue as the sky for many of the buildings, he does not use much yellow, except for a few windows. This gives the village its gloomy quality. Many interpretations hold that Gogh’s overall message was hope, which is why even in the darkness of the village there is still some light to be found, peeking through the windows.
In addition to his brush strokes created contrasting swirls and lines, they are also thick. This translates for many as passion, designed to make the painting more dramatic. The strokes are also very fluid and give the entire canvas a perception of movement. Looking at the piece one almost feels as they are floating, a feeling encouraged by the ocean-like quality of the sky, and the swimming reflections cast by the stars. It is almost as if the painting were alive, brought to life by the somewhat violent brush strokes that made it.
The most foreboding thing about Starry Night, is the cypress. The tree explodes from the bottom of the canvas and covers quite a bit off space. It is the center concentration for the color black. This makes it a very foreboding structure that cuts through the brightness of the painting. This is not only meant to represent gloom, as a cypress was used for funerals back then, but also as in interruption, cutting through the surreal calm of the painting. It also breaks the silence of the painting.
Van Gogh sent many copies of his work to his brother, with those copies he attached letters that boasted his opinion of his work. In talking about Starry Night, he described the quiet surrounding the landscape he had created (Foundation). Many people believe that Gogh created the work out of memory, but the various pencil sketches and variations sent to his brother show the painting to be a work of effort, not a flight of fancy (Foundation). Clearly, Gogh was working something out as he drew and re-drew the view from his window. Many of the variations are at different times of day, and many different perspectives. Obviously, Gogh was as captivated by what he was imaging as the people that see the finished work.
Starry Night, is an important work because it represents change. Not just a change in the mood of the author, but a change for his art, and by extension the art of everyone that has come behind him. At the time of its creation, Gogh was like the gloomy village, he was absent of light, but his stint in the asylum was helping him. It was filling him with light, a light that explodes it the sky above. This symbolism, rife with deep significance for the artist, a clear representation of his inner and outer struggle with the forces around him, has been felt for centuries. Post-impressionism is a clear deviation from realism, ignoring the factual, and focusing on the spiritual. Allowing artists to paint their emotions, to create poetry on the canvas. Gogh’s work is an inspiration of that, one that many future artists can follow.
This fact makes Starry Night, a beacon of change. One of the reasons people become lost in the sky is because they become lost in themselves, swimming in the contest between their inner and outer thoughts. This window will always be open, and people will continue to see their own reflection.
Foundation, The Art History. Vincent van Gogh. 1 January 2017. Article. 5 August 2017.