Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890)

'Starry Night', 1889 (oil on canvas)
VINCENT VAN GOGH (1853-1890)
'Starry Night', 1889 (oil on canvas)

Prints of 'Starry Night', the post impressionist landscape painting by Vincent Van Gogh, are used to decorate more bedrooms around the world than any other image in the history of art. It is one of those iconic images, like the Mona Lisa, that have become visual clichés due to mass reproduction and consequently deserve a closer look to rediscover their power.

In ancient Greece the followers of Pythagoras believed in 'The Music of the Spheres'. They thought that each planet in our solar system emitted a sound as it orbited the sun and that together they harmonised to create a heavenly tone. In Vincent Van Gogh's picture, the 'music of the spheres' is not so harmonic. It reaches a ferocious crescendo that resonates through the hills, trees and village. This is a painting that portrays the colossal power of nature as it overwhelms the scale of man.

If you live in the city today, light pollution from commercial and domestic lighting makes it is difficult to appreciate the power and beauty of the night sky. On a good night you can only make out a few of the major stars. However in the pitch black night of the countryside, you can literally see countless thousands of sparkling constellations. The awesome wonder of this vision leaves you with a profound sense of humility as you cannot help but appreciate your own smallness. Van Gogh's imagination confronts the frightening power of this infinite domain and he expresses his amazement in the exaggerated rhythms and colours of his brushstrokes. Although 'Starry Night' is not a 'realistic' image, there is no more powerful or honest depiction of the sky at night.

Van Gogh uses a very low eye level as a compositional device to display one of the most dramatic skies in the history of painting. The low eye level divides this painting into two symbolic areas:

The Heavenly Sky - the large area above the eye level which creates the space that is needed to display the convulsive power of a starlit heaven.

The Humble Town - the small area below the eye level which compresses the town into a respectful position at the bottom of the picture.

Van Gogh sees this as the natural order where man is diminished when confronted by the greater forces of nature and creation. He continues this comparison by echoing the shape of cypress tree with the church spire. These symbols - one a creation of nature - one a creation of man - stand out as they are the only vertical elements in the picture. Both symbols point to the heavens: the natural tree - strong, confident and in harmony with the elements; the man-made spire - weak, artificial and straining to reach the stars.

On a technical level he uses the difference in size between the tree and spire to create the illusion of spatial depth, a visual element that is otherwise sacrificed to the power of pattern and texture in the painting.

Vincent Van Gogh Notes

'Vincent - aged 13', 1866 (photograph)
VINCENT VAN GOGH (1853-1890)
'Vincent - aged 13', 1866 (photograph)
  • Van Gogh was born in Groot-Zundert, near Breda in Holland.
  • He trained as an art dealer in the Hague and in London.
  • He worked as a protestant missionary among the poor miners in the Borinage district of Belgium, but was sacked for 'undermining the dignity of the priesthood' as he was considered an embarrassment by adopting the squalid living conditions of his flock.
  • In 1880, he took up painting on the advice of his brother Theo and studied under his second cousin, the artist Anton Mauve.
  • In 1886, he moved to Paris where he both met the Impressionists and was inspired by Impressionism.
  • Van Gogh's painting has two distinct styles: pre 1886 when his paintings used the dark earthy colours and tones of traditional Dutch art; and post 1886 when his work adopted the vibrant hues of Impressionism.
  • In 1888, he went to live in the Yellow House in Arles to set up an artistic community with fellow artist, Paul Gauguin. With Van Gogh's mental health history, the enterprise was doomed to failure and in 1889 he committed himself to the St. Remy asylum.
  • In a fit of depression, he shot himself in the chest and died two days later on 29th July 1890, aged 37.
  • After his death he was considered to be one of the major Post Impressionist artists influencing both the Fauves and the Expressionists as well as many individual artists since.