Text by Deanna MacDonald
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Van Gogh painted this celebrated ‘Starry Night’ in June of 1889 while confined to an asylum in the monastery of Saint Paul de Mausole near St-Rémy-de-Provence. He had come to Provence a year and a half earlier, looking for artistic inspiration and solace for his already troubled mind. He found his inspiration in the brilliant colour and light of the region, capturing in painting his deep affinity for nature. However, peace of mind was more elusive. Following a dispute with his friend Paul Gauguin, van Gogh suffered a mental breakdown, ending with the now infamous ear incident in which van Gogh cut off part of his own ear and gave it to a local prostitute. A few months later he voluntarily entered the asylum at St-Rémy.
While there, during lucid periods, van Gogh was permitted to paint in the surrounding countryside and one of his favourite subjects was the Provençal night sky. ‘This morning I saw the country from my window a long time before sunrise,’ he wrote in one of his many letters to his devoted brother Theo, ‘with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big’. For van Gogh, the stars and sky were filled with metaphysical meaning and to paint them was a means of redemption. ‘Looking at the stars always makes me dream,’ wrote van Gogh, ‘Why, I ask myself, shouldn’t the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France? Just as we take the train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star’.
In this fantastic night sky van Gogh depicts a highly charged mixture of imagination and memory, an expression of his own mental landscape. The sky is like a churning wave, swirling with frenetic energy – the stars and moon shimmer like cosmic fireworks. Connecting the land and the sky is a characteristic Provençal cypress that reaches up like a flame into the night. The village, particularly its soaring spire, recalls the Dutch communities van Gogh would have known as a youth; however the natural setting is pure Provence filtered through the turbulent mind of the artist. The entire scene is imbued with intense emotion, articulated with bold, interacting colour, wild brushwork and expressive lines. ‘The emotions are sometimes so strong that one works without being aware of working,’ van Gogh wrote, ‘and the strokes come with a sequence and coherence like words in a letter or speech.’
Though largely self-taught as an artist, van Gogh had spent time in Paris before coming to Provence where he absorbed numerous influences: the bold colour and direct effect of Japanese prints, the techniques of the Impressionists and the approach of artists like Gauguin and the Pont-Aven Group who believed an artist should be free to invent subjects and to stylize. However, van Gogh adhered to no one stylistic approach; he once wrote ‘I think the search for style is prejudicial to the true sentiment of things.’ For above all, he wanted people to ‘see’ what he saw in the Provence landscape, which he thought others had missed: ‘Good Lord, I have seen things by certain painters which do not do justice to the subject at all. There is plenty for me to work on here.’ So well did van Gogh succeed in capturing the quintessence of Provence, that today local tourist boards promote the region using his images. And so well did he express his inner vision, his art became a touchstone for all subsequent Expressionist painting and much of early 20th-century art. However, in his lifetime, van Gogh sold only one painting and was supported both emotionally and financially by his brother Theo. And though he painted prolifically – during his year in St-Rémy van Gogh produced over 150 paintings – he found neither critical success nor consolation and a year after completing this work took his own life at the age of 37.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1889 Giovanni Segantini: The Fruits of Love, Leipzig, Museum der bildenden Künste