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Behind the Art: What makes ‘The Starry Night’ by Vincent van Gogh so iconic?

Vincent van Gogh considered The Starry Night a "failure". What makes it an icon in modern times -- the story behind the artwork or the painting itself?

painting, artwork, The Starry Night, The Starry Night painting, The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh, Vincent van Gogh artworks, Vincent van Gogh mental state, Vincent van Gogh life and work, indian express newsThe artist, like many others, gained popularity after his death, making The Starry Night an epitome of modern art mixed with the Post-Impressionism movement. (Photo: Pixabay)

The Starry Night — three words that describe a timeless and magnificent painting done by the Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh in 1889. A painting that became an overnight sensation and immortalised a painter who was not only known for his work but his mental health deterioration, which led to him cutting off his ear and eventually dying by suicide. Much has been said about this painting, which now hangs permanently in the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, and is worth billions of dollars. Is it the story behind this painting that makes it so special or the art itself that speaks great volumes? 

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A painting by a ‘tortured’ artist

Known as a ‘tortured’ artist, Van Gogh was not so famous during his lifetime. When he painted The Starry Night, he was staying in Saint-Paul-de-Mausole mental asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in the southern parts of France. He had admitted himself to the asylum after he cut his ear off during an argument with his fellow Post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin. During his stay at the asylum, he got two rooms — one was his bedroom, the other a painting studio. He produced several paintings based on the view from his window and the surrounding gardens. His room had a view of the French Alpilles mountain range, which inspired a lot of his landscape paintings. The dark spires in the foreground of the painting depict cypress trees. The trees are usually associated with death and cemeteries, and in some cultures, they symbolise the life of the soul after death. Some people even say a cypress tree reaching the sky means sending the soul to an afterlife. During this time, Van Gogh experienced intense psychotic episodes, and he considered this painting a complete failure.

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The painting was eventually taken by his brother. It is said he painted this piece under the influence of treatment drugs for his manic episodes and that he was hallucinating throughout the process. According to pathologist Paul Wolf, Van Gogh’s fondness for yellow in paintings like The Starry Night resulted from taking too much digitalis, a treatment in his day for epilepsy. 

Contrary to what people believe, the painting does not reflect his deteriorating mental state. It is known that painting was the only thing that helped him get better which is why his brother insisted he had his painting studio at the asylum. Van Gogh is also known to have loved to paint the night sky. As an admirer and student of astronomy, he liked studying the position of stars and planets through his artwork. This can be seen in the famous The Starry Night painting.

Van Gogh is also known to have loved to paint the night sky. As an admirer and student of astronomy, he liked studying the position of stars and planets through his artwork. (Photo: Pixabay)

The Starry Night

Apart from astronomy, Van Gogh was heavily influenced by the Japanese art style. The Starry Night is a matter of swirls. If you look at the brushstrokes in the painting, they are flowing and are made in circular lines. Some brushstrokes even look like great waves in the sky. This was inspired by The Great Wave by Hokusai. Van Gogh creates a sense of movement with choppier white lines as the sky meets the mountains in the background. He also made use of contrasting colours to create more movement. Each star and the moon has an aura of yellow and white surrounding them. He then uses darker hues of blue to create the contrast. A big part of the painting is the village with a church as the central focal point. This village did not exist in real life and was just a fragment of Van Gogh’s imagination. It is said he could have made the church from his childhood memories as the architecture of it resonates more with the churches found in The Netherlands. He was known to have a religious streak in him and thus several people believe this painting has subliminal religious messages. The eleven stars in the sky, for example, could depict the story of Joseph in the Bible’s Old Testament. 

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Impact of the painting in recent times

For a painter who painted over 800 oil paintings and sold only one in his lifetime, Van Gogh thought of Starry Night as a ‘failure’; but it would shake up the modern world like a tsunami. Be it the intriguing story of the artist or the art techniques used at that time, this painting still resonates with art lovers across the world. The artist, like many others, gained popularity after his death, making The Starry Night an epitome of modern art mixed with the Post-Impressionism movement. Those studying art or who simply like to look at artworks can appreciate the composition of the painting with the celestial swirls, stylised stars, a crescent and radiating moon. The painting has also become a well-known symbol of expressionism. Starry Night showcases the vast power of nature and the church spire and cypress tree — representing man and nature — both point to the heavens.

Next Up in Behind the Art: Why is The Weeping Woman by Picasso considered an icon of Cubism Movement?

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First published on: 03-07-2022 at 10:15 IST
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