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Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night: Great Art Explained

vincent van gogh is admitted to a mental asylum outside samrami in provence he would spend just over a year there it was originally planned that he’d go to a large public institution in marseille with over a thousand patients right in the heart of the city if he had there is no chance that he would have produced the extraordinary work he did in the small asylum at san remi with only 41 patients vincent would be treated with kindness and understanding the doctors quickly realized that the only way vincent would survive was if he was given the space and the freedom to paint and create art would keep him alive as other patients screamed through the night vincent’s creativity and work ethic were stronger than ever he spent every waking hour painting and on the whole producing mostly optimistic landscapes he always worked extremely quickly often finishing a painting in just a few hours incredibly considering his circumstances he finished at least 150 paintings during his stay at the asylum that is about one painting every other day and it was on the 18th of june 1889 that he painted the starry night [Music] in popular culture vincent van gogh is often seen as the archetypal mad crazed artist and although he did have extreme manic episodes most of the time he was lucid and rational vincent was incredibly intelligent and well-read he was so knowledgeable about art and artists he was articulate and spoke four languages he also had lifelong friends who he met or wrote to regularly but he struggled to understand his place in the world after a particularly difficult period living with paul gauguin he suffered an attack of acute mania culminating in hallucinations and hearing voices which led to him cutting off his own ear the doctors at the asylum diagnosed epilepsy in all probability he also had what today we call bipolar with manic episodes and auditory hallucinations as well as syphilis he called his fellow patients his companions in misfortune and recent discoveries show us that vincent was probably the sanest patient at samurami overall the asylum had a positive effect on him and he was well enough to paint about 75 of the time one visitor when he came to see vincent found him to be in perfect physical and mental health and after he left the asylum vincent went to paris to visit his brother teo whose wife joe remarked on how healthy he looked in the asylum he was drinking a lot less no absinthe no complicated romances and a regular routine with three meals a day isolation turned out to be good for him and with no outside distractions vincent always a hard worker would channel all his energies into his work when we think of 19th century asylums we think of them as horrific institutions but the founder of samurai asylum was a progressive who believed that being surrounded by nature was good for troubled minds and had planted extensive gardens he also believed in the healing power of art and music of course it was not easy for vincent and he suffered manic attacks when he was unable to paint but it could have been a lot worse his brother teo who was paying for the treatment insisted that the asylum allow vincent to paint and he was given a dedicated studio his paintings are so often seen as a descent into madness but his work drove him and energized him he created these images despite his mental illness not because of it as vincent was led into his sparse cell on the first day he must have been terrified but also reassured to find that although his window had bars the view was spectacular wheat fields glowed in the sun with olive groves and vineyards receding into the distant foothills of a low mountain range called les alpil initially he portrayed the world he saw from this room the subject of many paintings at samurami but within weeks he would be allowed to wander around the dramatic countryside alone the morning after his arrival at the asylum vincent went into the walled garden set up his easel and by lunchtime had painted this the first of his asylum masterpieces vincent van gogh was a largely self-taught artist who didn’t pick up a paintbrush until he was 30 years old and just seven years later he would be dead it was really his last four years where he developed the style we would come to know him by and these were also his most prolific years once he found his way he was making up for lost time vincent’s two years in paris up until february 1888 are widely seen as laying the foundation for his later unique style exposing him to the influence of impressionists such as monet and pisarro but also a younger generation of artists including paul siniak emil benner and toulouse latrek who would all remain lifelong friends like many of that generation he was influenced by japanese prince which along with his paris years would have a transformative effect on his work and lay the foundations for radical works like the starry night we know for a fact that vincent was an admirer of hockeysize the great wave and here we can make comparisons not only between the composition but also between the rich blue tones of hocker-sized tempestuous seas and the turbulent skies of starry night for the final five years of his career the bright new palette takes over from his previous dark muted color scheme a period that coincided with the invention of many new synthetic pigments that vincent took advantage of color above all was vincent’s visual vocabulary with these later works we see more and more japanese influence blocks of pure color dark outlines no shadows unusual cropping and distorted perspective [Music] this was just one of the many letters vincent wrote to friends that mentioned a starry sky and it was something he had planned for a while the starry night depicts the view from his asylum window on the upper floor he had already painted the view dozens of times but this time it was a nocturn which as he couldn’t paint in the dark meant it was painted from memory during the day in his ground floor studio the views he painted from his window are all linked by the diagonal line coming in from the right depicting the low rolling hills in reality the cypress trees were much smaller and beyond the far wall enclosing the wheat field for starry night vincent brings the tree much closer to the pitcher plane this reminds us of the tight cropping we see in japanese prince the cyprus tree was a newly discovered motif for vincent and are seen as a symbol of death in mediterranean culture here the tree shoots up into the sky linking heaven and earth like the impressionists vincent had always insisted on working directly from nature but a few months earlier poor gauguin had tried to persuade him to paint from his imagination vincent resisted then but in the asylum with limited freedom it was a necessity in this highly charged picture he would create in paint something we cannot see or touch something immaterial he would use paint to show a sky that is electric that is how we imagine the night sky to be this is a critical time for art when artists are shifting from the narrative to expressing themselves with new ways of seeing vincent’s work is paving the way for modern art is it an accurate depiction of the stars on or around june the 18th astronomers have worked out that the moon that night was actually almost full rather than the crescent moon we see in the painting and venus the brightest star was only visible just before dawn by which time the moon was not visible from vincent’s room on this recreation we can see the constellation aries was also visible i think the starry night is an amalgamation of nighttime and dawn views from his window the sky is painted with vincent’s signature short brush strokes of thick impasto we can see how he applies the impasto technique painting so thickly sometimes straight from the tube spreading paint like butter with a palette knife it is these paint heavy stabbing brush strokes that distinguishes vincent from the other post-impressionists a few weeks before vincent in a manic episode had tried to poison himself by swallowing paint and turpentine literally killing himself with color and now he was using the same tubes to produce this color was vincent’s way of communicating and he had an innate and even avant-garde tendency towards colors that were expressive and intense he had learned about complementary color theory after seeing paintings by artists like rubens and in particular de la croix in paris vincent went to see this sealing mural by de la cua in the louvre and it was a revelation how bright contrasting colors could work together vincent read everything he could on delacoi’s color theories which uses opposite colors on the color wheel a combination which gives high contrast and high impact for example red and green or blue and orange the impressionists in paris gave him looser lighter brush strokes and the pointelist syrah introduced him to optical mixing pure colors blended by the eye to form a coherent image his brother theo would later say that the starry night was style over substance but just how stylized are vincent’s swirling galaxies if we look at a modern image of the whirlpool galaxy it bears a striking resemblance to vincent’s stars but could he have known about spiral galaxies back in 1889 this drawing made by the english astronomer lord ross in 1850 was reproduced as an etching in a french astronomy book which had caused a sensation vincent who was passionate about astronomy had even met the author in paris the white band hanging over the hills is almost certainly the morning mist by the time he painted the starry night he was allowed out to explore the area alone and it was on one of these walks he drew this bird’s eye view of the village he places the village in the valley even though it was not visible from vincent’s room or from his studio and was in fact in the opposite direction he shows a dozen or so houses whereas there were in fact hundreds he has the houses lit by impossibly bright gas lamps as a device to balance out the yellow stars vincent paints an idealized village and it bears no resemblance to the real one or even the dome church of samurami the pitched roof he portrays is more reminiscent of the dutch churches he knew well i wonder if he was also thinking of the little childhood church in newnan where his father was the preacher like all great paintings the starry night has been interpreted in many ways notably concerning his religious beliefs although vincent became an evangelical preacher in his twenties he later rejected christianity but when vincent lost his faith he transferred many of his ideas into his art hard work and the appreciation of nature was seen as part of the worship of god in the protestant tradition in which he was raised his art had always emphasized the changing and renewing power of the seasons and there was no harder working artist than vincent in less than a decade he created about 2 100 artworks including around 860 oil paintings most of which date from the last two years of his life he spoke of art as a new kind of religion a way to console people and the starry night in particular reflected these beliefs nature for him was a source of the infinite and the stars had a deep spiritual meaning stars that must have comforted vincent as he gazed at the night sky from his cell [Music] vincent van gogh would dismiss his most famous painting as a failure and maybe if he lived longer he would have painted over it as he did with so many of his paintings he considered failures he was released from the asylum and he moved to the village of over 20 kilometers north of paris and two months later he shot himself it took vincent 36 hours to die which meant teo the brother who supported him both financially and emotionally was at his side when he died taiyo himself was to die just six months after vincent it is a myth that vincent was unrecognized in his lifetime he was already considered an important artist by his peers his work had been shown in an exhibition in brussels alongside toulouse latrek cezanne and renoir the red vineyard had sold for the decent sum of 400 francs a major art critic had just published an article on him and only two months before his death ten of his works went on display in a major show in paris attended by the president of france vincent van gogh was on the verge of success and may have killed himself at the very moment he was going to become what he had always wanted [Music]
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