One of the most prominent paintings of Vincent van Gogh – The Starry Night – is currently exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The piece of art was created in 1889 and is still one of the most glorious paintings of van Gogh. The Starry Night expresses the unique style of the most celebrated Dutch artist. The picture, which is a figment of the artist’s imagination, was painted in Saint-Remy, France. This paper will present a formal analysis, contextualization of the artwork, and opinion of the author on the unique features and the meaning of the painting.
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One might say that the colors of the painting make The Starry Night stand out. The stars seem genuinely bottomless, the Crescent moon gives the impression of the sun, cypresses are more like flames, and spiral curls pull the viewer into the abyss. The vigor of the artwork is focused on the uniform and continuous motion of the sky. The illusion of flickering elements is created by a mix of white and yellow colors that contrast each other on the canvas. One might say that the painting can draw the attention of any viewer.
Looking at the picture, the viewer sees a night landscape. A significant part of the canvas is occupied by the sky, the stars, and the moon, which are depicted mainly on the right side. To the right in the foreground, trees are located, and to the left, below is a town or village hidden in the trees. In the background, there are dark hills on the horizon line. Heavy thick strokes create the rich texture of the painting. The value of the art lies in a specific oily technique of strokes that van Gogh used. One can state that the picture belongs to the genre of landscape.
The composition of The Starry Night is balanced with diagonal lines – on the right side, there are trees at the bottom, and on the left side, there is a bright yellow moon at the top. The sky prevails over the earth; this proportion shows that the upper part prevails over the lower. All shapes and elements are expressed by color and rounded strokes. However, in the lower part of the painting, where there are the town, trees, and hills, the distinction among them is used by separate linear dark forms.
Deep space is created in the painting due to the color scheme, the composition of the movement and strokes. The depiction of color was of paramount importance to van Gogh. Once, he wrote that he was “very sensitive to color and its particular language, its effects of complementarity, contrasts, harmony” (van Gogh). The volume of objects is hidden by broad strokes; and individual contour strokes only outline the size of the objects.
All parts of The Starry Night are subject to a single idea and do not have autonomy. This unity is expressed in the composition and dynamics, because some objects (houses, trees) are visible, and many of them overlap each other (trees, field houses). The scale of the objects is also changed (the stars and the moon are hypertrophied). A distinctive feature of the painting is the dynamism, which conveys the emotional experiences of the artist. The Starry Night draws a viewer into the mystery of the sky and the night.
Vincent van Gogh painted the picture at the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole lunatic asylum in Saint-Remy-de-Provence in 1889. The Starry Night was drawn based on “van Gogh’s direct observations as well as his imagination, memories, and emotions” (Stanska). Van Gogh painted the artwork during a period of his remission. It was a time when he asked asylum keepers to move back to his studio in Arles. But residents of the city signed a petition demanding to expel the artist from the city. Despite the intense desire, Van Gogh had never returned to Arles.
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The creation of the picture, according to researchers, was influenced by the legend of Joseph from the Old Testament (Schapiro, p. 100). The historian Meyer Schapiro claimed that The Starry Night might be a “visionary [painting] inspired by a religious mood” (p. 100). The spiritual narrative of the eleven stars might be found in The Starry Night. Two vortices occupy the center of the painting: one is large, the other is small. Vortices are depicted as a direct conflict of unequal competitors, senior and junior. Behind this duel, it is possible to see friendly, but competitive relations with Paul Gauguin, or with van Gogh’s brother, Theo, with whom van Gogh had a close relationship. The picture has everything except the sun, but a viewer does not know, who was van Gogh’s sun: brother, father, or another person. It might be suggested that van Gogh, who was heavily dependent on his younger brother, wanted him to be subordinated.
One might state that the cypress, whose flames are directed upwards, is an unconscious symbol of what van Gogh would like to aspire to. He wanted to feel a connection with space, with the abyss that feeds his creativity, but, at the same time, not to lose touch with the earth. In reality, van Gogh had no such roots, because he lost them during his life.
The Starry Night seems to be painted by a child, not a famous artist, because of its extraterrestrial nature, depicting a spaceship or a rocket in the sky. These colorful and extraordinary features make this painting exceptional and perfect. One might wonder, what are the special features depicted in this picture that force millions of viewers search for a solution? Perhaps, a single answer to this question will not be found. Nevertheless, The Starry Night might not leave indifferent any person who has seen its reproduction at least once.
- Schapiro, Meyer. Vincent van Gogh. Harry N. Abrams, 1950.
- Stanska, Zuzanna. “Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night (Painting Of The Week).” DailyArt Magazine, 2016.
- Van Gogh, Vincent. Letter to Willemien van Gogh. 1890.Web.