Artwork Analysis: Starry Night by Van Gogh

Van Gogh Starry Night
Van Gogh, Starry Night (1889)

Artsper invites you to dive into the depths of Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Although this mythical work has been immensely studied and commented on, its details continue to captivate and fascinate us.

This painting is a representation of what Van Gogh could see and reproduce from the asylum in St-Rémy-de-Provence. It was during this tormented period in his life that he painted one of art history’s most famous paintings, which has been a part of the MoMA’s permanent collection since 1941. While many would claim that this work is a cry of rebellion from a misunderstood genius, others agree that it is mostly a depiction of his fragile mental state. However upon closer inspection, this work is not as “crazy” as it initially appears. The details of this work haven’t been created at random, instead each element of the work has its own meaning; reinforcing the significance of this incredible piece.

The Spiral

Close-up of the nebula and spiral in Starry Night, Van Gogh, 1845
Close-up of the nebula and spiral in Starry Night, Van Gogh, 1845

This is undoubtedly the first aspect of the painting that captures our attention. The enormous whirling spiral engulfs the painting like a wave. It inhales the viewer’s gaze leaving them dizzy and dazed, offering an insight into the depths of Van Gogh’s delicate mind. However, what if this spiral was simply inspired by the increasingly popular study of astronomy in the 19th century? Van Gogh was infatuated with astronomy and regularly read “L’Astronomie” (Astronomy) magazine, which was edited by his friend Camille Flammarion. In order to depict his troubled psyche, he imitated scientific reproductions of nebulae. Therefore, the spiral was not a madness-induced creation, but rather a study of one of Van Gogh’s main interests.

The Sky

Starry Night Over the Rhone
Vincent Van Gogh, Starry Night Over the Rhone

The sky ripples and flows like a river, captivating the viewer with its humanlike energy. There is certainly a spiritual aspect to the work, which is mirrored in Van Gogh’s letters to his brother at the time, where he speaks of a “terrible need of religion. So at night [he] goes out to paint the stars.” Therefore the sky becomes a means for Van Gogh to understand and explore one of the beliefs that preoccupies him the most; life after death. This preoccupation is highlighted in Van Gogh’s choice of colour where dusty mauves and blue-black tones fill the sky, a choice that is reciprocated in his other works such as Café Terrace at Night and Starry Night over the Rhone.

The Moon and the Stars

Starry Night Close-up
Close-up of Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh

Astrophysicists have established that the moon and stars depicted in Van Gogh’s sky, match published astronomical observations in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence on the 25th May 1889. Capella was particularly bright when Van Gogh painted the sky in 1889, which is why we can see a much larger and more luminous star in his work. The moon like the star also produces an enormous amount of light, which is accentuated in the painting due to the use of concentric circles. However the light remains in the sky, it does not spread to the edges of the painting as the ground remains dark.

The Bell Tower and the Village

Close-up of Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh
Close-up of Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh

According to the layout of the asylum at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Van Gogh could only see a small plot of land from his room. Unlike the stars, the bell tower and village were not directly observed by the artist but were instead recreated from his imagination. These two elements are at the bottom of the work, taking up just one third of the space. They have been manipulated to the extent that they look like they’re moving, while the houses surrounded by darkness give the painting a stained-glass quality. The bell tower and church allow Van Gogh to accentuate the mystical and cosmic power of the sky.

The Cypress Tree

Cyprès la nuit étoilée Van Gogh
Détails de la nuit étoilée de Van Gogh

Finally, the cypress is also a major feature of the work and quite possibly one of the most important. Thick, tormented and rising like a flame, it bridges together the two halves of the painting: the sky and ground. Van Gogh’s decision to place it in the foreground was significant. The cypress is traditionally a tree associated with death, and according to Van Gogh, it was the only way of accessing a life beyond earth.

This work remains both a portrayal of Van Gogh’s chaotic mind but also a depiction of his main interests. It is additionally indisputable proof of Van Gogh’s genius and incomparable talent.

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