A Little Art History: Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhone

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Starry Night Over the Rhône by Vincent Van Gogh, completed in Arles, France, in September 1888. Oil on canvas. (From the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.)  Image of the painting is from Wikipedia.

If I had to name one, and only one, painting in the world that takes my breath away each time I see it, it would be Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhone, the lesser known of his “starry night” paintings, painted in September 1888. Later, in June 1889, he would paint The Starry Night, the one he is famous for, similar in color but vastly different in tenor — a night sky painted shortly after the artist voluntarily committed himself to a mental institution in southern France and which, it has often been suggested, reflects the artist’s troubled mind with its brushstrokes that undulate, spiral, and seem to pulse with emotion. Whether that is a fair assessment, I’m not sure (who are we to say with any certainty whether the artist’s mindset was troubled or lucid in the moments when he was creating), but what is true in viewing The Starry Night is the feeling of an artist consumed by his subject — there is something almost manic in its expression — whereas when viewing his earlier canvas, Starry Night Over the Rhone, one is overcome by the very hush of this work: the exquisite sense of wonder and beguilement. Starry Night Over the Rhone is a romantic work, by which I mean that it speaks of Van Gogh’s romance with the town of Arles, in the French countryside, where he had arrived from Paris just seven months prior. In Arles, he fell in love with the land, its colors, and the quality of light that southern France is known for, and in the short time he lived there (a little over a year) he completed 200 paintings and more than 100 drawings and watercolors. His inclusion of a man and woman strolling in the foreground of Starry Night Over the Rhone underscores its romantic air, but that they appear so small against the night sky which both envelopes and eclipses them is even more telling of the kind of enchantment Van Gogh was under.

“I need a starry night with cypresses or maybe above a field of ripe wheat,” the artist wrote to his brother Theo in April 1888, and subsequent letters to others reveal that it was an occupying thought. Writing to the painter Emile Bernard in June, he mused, “But when shall I ever paint the Starry Sky, this painting that keeps haunting me?” — and in a letter to his sister sent in September, around the time he painted Starry Night Over the Rhone, he said, “Often it seems to me night is even more richly coloured than day,” This sentiment, articulated verbally and then given fullest expression in a painting of the most vivid blues imaginable — ultramarine, Prussian blue, cobalt — is the siren song that continually draws me to this work. It reminds me of the twilight blues in my own part of the world, so intimately felt in late summer and autumn when the atmosphere is less humid. Skies that are rich oceans unto themselves with their push-pull magnetism: first a suede-like expanse of dusky blue upon which the stars slowly, softly wink, so unhurried they make you wait and practically count them; then a period of absorption when the sky seems to fold into itself, deepening to indigo and finally to black, propelling the stars forward in quickening fashion until they are infinite and crisp in their brilliancy, appearing everywhere, all at once.

Van Gogh was facing the southwest when he painted this nighttime scene of Arles’ waterfront, yet he painted the Big Dipper (or the Great Bear, as he referred to it), a northern constellation, into this scene. Taking this kind of artistic license with his subject makes perfect sense to me: it accentuates the romantic mood of the work, as almost anyone who has ever looked at the night sky can identify the Big Dipper and most of us take joy in seeing it. It’s such a full constellation – the constellation that most imparts a feeling of grandeur; that it’s also universally recognizable makes me think Van Gogh understood that hanging these northern stars over the southern panorama would make the viewer feel included in the scene — part of the wide world and its mysterious cosmos — rather than someone standing separate and apart from it. I can think of a great many paintings and artworks which leave the viewer feeling like a bit of an outsider, often for valid and understandable reasons, such as works done as private commissions and those done as studies (neither of which were intended for a greater audience), as well as works intended as political statements, or enigmas, by artists who wanted to make us think a little harder. Some of them are masterpieces and some I have enjoyed quite a bit, but for the most part they aren’t works that move me. Starry Night Over the Rhone not only moves me, it sweeps me off my feet. An artist who can create something that feels so intimate and, at the same time, so universally understood is an artist who has achieved the sublime.

Van Gogh’s life, on the other hand, as everyone knows, was not sublime. He had wanted to start an artist colony in Arles – it was a place he wanted to share with others – and for a brief time he did share it with the renowned artist Paul Gauguin. Alas, the two men fought, indulged their vices at the local brothels, and in a final confrontation, the already emotionally troubled Van Gogh cut off a portion of his own ear with a razor (the entire outer ear or the lobe, depending on the source), scaring Gauguin back  to Paris. After voluntarily committing himself to a mental institution in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, he would eventually paint The Starry Night, the version that became his most famous canvas. In this version, the artist seems no longer separate from his subject, beholding it from afar in a romantic way, but frenziedly immersed in it — almost as if he has been become one with the night sky. A year after painting it, Van Gogh died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the age of 37. According to his brother Theo, his last words were “The sadness will last forever.”

I would like to think that somewhere in the deep chemistry of the universe an awareness has reached him of the considerable beauty he created, that is undying and will last forever, too.

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The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh, completed in Saint-Rémy, France, in June 1889. Oil on canvas. (From the permanent collection of the  Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA.)  Image of the painting is from Wikipedia.