Starry Night was completed near the mental asylum of Saint-Rémy,
13 months before Van Gogh's death at the age of 37. Vincent's mental instability
is legend. He attempted to take Paul Gauguin's life and later committed himself
to several asylums in hopes of an unrealized cure. Van Gogh painted furiously
and The Starry Night vibrates with rockets of burning yellow while planets
gyrate like cartwheels. The hills quake and heave, yet the cosmic gold fireworks
that swirl against the blue sky are somehow restful. Starry Night is probably Vincent van Gogh's
most famous painting. Instantly recognizable because of its unique style, this
work has been the subject of poetry, fiction, CD-ROMs as well as the well known
song "Vincent" or "Starry, Starry Night" by Don McLean.
While there's no denying the popularity of Starry
Night, it's also interesting to note that there is very little known about
Vincent's own feelings toward his work. This is mainly due to the fact that he
only mentions it in his letters to Théo twice (nos. 595 and 607), and then
only in passing. In his correspondence with his brother, Vincent would often discuss
specific works in great detail, but not so in the case of Starry Night.
Why? It's difficult to say. Starry Night was painted while Vincent was
in the asylum at Saint-Rémy and his behavior was very erratic at the time, due
to the severity of his attacks. Unlike most of Van Gogh's works, Starry Night
was painted from memory and not outdoors as was Vincent's preference. This may,
in part, explain why the emotional impact of the work is so much more powerful
than many of Van Gogh's other works from the same period.
Some people have made stylistic comparisons to
Vincent's other well known and equally turbulent work Wheatfield with Crows.
Does the tumultuous style of these works reflect a tortured mind? Or is there
something more we can read within the whorls Vincent's raging night sky? This
is what makes Starry Night not only Vincent's most famous work, but also
one of its most frequently interpreted in terms of its meaning and importance.
Some people have speculated about the eleven stars
in the painting. While it's true that Vincent didn't have the same religious fervor
in 1889, when he painted the work, as he did in his earlier years, there is a
possibility that the story of Joseph in the Old Testament may have had an influence
on the composition of the work. 'Look, I have had another dream' he said, 'I thought
I saw the sun, the moon and eleven stars, bowing to me.' Genesis 37:10 Whatever
the interpretations or underlying meanings, Starry Night stands out as
one of the most important works of art produced in the nineteenth century.
Self-Portraits of Van Gogh [click on an image to enlarge]