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.

 

 

Topher Brophy and his dog Rosenberg

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Instagram celebrities Topher Brophy and his dog Rosenberg. “We looks so much alike physically, and do everything together, so dressing the same just feels natural for us,” Brophy said in an interview at The Dodo (a digital media site).

I’m not an Instagram follower, but seeing photos of Topher Brophy and his Aussiedoodle dog Rosenberg could make me a quick convert. Judging by the very earliest photo on their Instagram page, these two bonded very deeply from their first meeting, back when Rosenberg was a puppy and Brophy’s beard was a lot more trim. Even then, there was a resemblance between the two, and Brophy decided to channel it into something that would give people a lift, creating a series of photos of him and Rosenberg dressed up in matching clothes and costumes.  “If we can make people smile, even for a second, we have something to be proud of — in addition to our matching, shiny, flowing manes and green eyes, of course,” he told an interviewer at The Dodo.

As those manes have gotten longer, the resemblance has only gotten stronger. (It’s been noted that they have very similar eyes, and this is so true when you see some of the photos close up.) And while their photos are a riot to look at, they are paired with captions that are of a tender, gentle nature… in other words, they’re sweet rather than attempting to be witty or cool or over-the-top humorous, and yet neither are they overly sentimental or saccharine. I think Brophy has a knack for striking a perfect pitch, and if he and Rosenberg had their own line of greeting cards, I’d be a customer, as I really like that combo of humor and sweetness.

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For more photos, follow the link to Topher Brophy and Rosenberg’s Instagram page

Where My Love of Art Went: Back to the Beginning

When I was in college (many years ago), I took a couple of Art History courses my freshman year and found myself smitten, and though I had no plans to pursue a career in it, by the end of four years I had taken enough classes to earn a minor. It’s funny, I don’t know where and when my passion for art went missing, but looking back, I clearly remember having it – the excitement of going to New York City to the museums as part of a bus trip that my professor arranged on a couple of occasions, and the writing assignments she gave us while there – and I can pinpoint exactly when it first started: in childhood, when I stared at a Dutch marine landscape painting of boats at my grandmother’s house every time I visited her. I was transfixed by the way the ripples of water were portrayed in that painting, in undulating hues of blue, lavender and dark gray: colors that had never before been coupled to the notion of water in my young mind, yet seemed to speak of it so ingeniously. I must have asked a lot of questions about that painting, because my grandmother made it a point thereafter to give me books and articles about artists, encouraging me to read not only about Michelangelo, who was my clear favorite at the time, but also to explore folk artists like Grandma Moses. (In regard to the latter, I should mention that my grandmother was probably influenced in this choice by the nation’s stylish First Lady at the time – Jacqueline Kennedy – who decorated some of the White House walls with the art of Grandma Moses, but I think the work actually excited her, as my grandmother wasn’t the kind of person who endorsed something based on celebrity.)

These days, I find I could care less about going to museums, and though that might sound sad and depressing, or closed-minded and provincial (your pick), I think it’s more a matter of finally having arrived at an age where know what art speaks to me, on a very personal level. The art I love today can’t be found in museums, for what I love most is fairy tale illustrations of a certain age, and the artist who has been my favorite for the past twenty years is the Danish artist Kay Nielsen (1886-1957), whose work pictured here in this post is one of many he did for East of the Sun, West of the Moon, a book of Nordic fairy tales originally published in 1914 and recently re-published by a publishing firm called Taschen in Germany). I love the richness of detail, but until recently I couldn’t say exactly why I find his work so utterly captivating – and now I know. It’s that there is a story within the art, and the story is evident even if you’ve never read the fairy tale that it was intended to accompany. It adds dimension to the art – it gives it life. Kay Nielsen’s works pulsate … they vibrate with life, even as there is also, at the same time, a sense of elegant stillness and wonder about them. His work isn’t part of an art “movement” – it doesn’t make a political or social or cultural statement. Instead it brings flesh and cinema to the pages of a book, and in doing so, it has a story encapsulated within it that allows it to live on its own, beyond the page.