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Fri Feb 13, 2015, 05:07 PM

“I have had a most rare vision”: Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night [View all]

“It often seems to me that the night is much more alive and richly colored than the day...” --Vincent, in a letter to his brother Theo

[IMG][/IMG]
The Starry Night. 1889. The Museum of Modern Art. New York.

I like the late John Updike’s term, “annunciatory apparitions,” that he finds in Van Gogh’s paintings. It’s a bit of a theological explication but oh, why not? Van Gogh can seem a throwback to himself as the (failed) evangelist preacher, with a religious theme in The Starry Night. This is the viewpoint from Legomenon, an online literary journal that explores the meaning of art. The working theory here has Van Gogh comparing himself to the Old Testament’s Joseph in this passage

“Then he dreamed still another dream and told it to his brother, saying, ‘Look, I have dreamed another dream. And this time, the sun, the moon and the eleven stars bowed down to me.’ ” Genesis 37.9

In the Bible story, Joseph is a dreamer and an outcast who was thrown in a pit, sold into slavery and endured years of imprisonment (as Van Gogh was held in an asylum in Saint-Remy, which is where he created this masterpiece). Joseph’s eleven brothers gave him no acceptance or respect. The artist, feeling rejected by the art critics of his day, may be saying “you disrespect me now but someday I will get the recognition I deserve.” And, of course, the painting has eleven stars and a crescent moon ablaze in its sky.

The town seems mostly asleep, unaware of this roiling scene. The people are in their snug, tidy world, not conscious of the torment of Vincent, oblivious to his suffering in their very midst.

detail of town
[IMG][/IMG]

But is Van Gogh present here? According to this theory, he is, in the image of the cypress tree. It writhes upward, a darkling force challenging the fireballs in the sky above. The cypress tree was something of an obsession with the artist and he painted several landscapes that prominently included them. Ominously, it has historically been associated with cemeteries and the after life.

Before her suicide, Anne Sexton in a terrifyingly prescient poem contemplating The Starry Night wrote

Oh starry starry night! This is how
I want to die:

into that rushing beast of the night,
sucked up by that great dragon, to split
from my life with no flag,
no belly,
no cry.


This starry night is tense, erratic, frenzied. We can, however, look to his other famous night sky painting, Starry Night over the Rhone, for more of a beneficence.

[IMG][/IMG]

1888. Musee d’Orsay, Paris

The goodness and tenderness in this work was completely intended. Van Gogh said, “I want to say something consoling as music does...I want to paint men and women with a touch of the eternal, whose symbol was once the halo which we try to convey by the very radiance and vibrancy of the coloring.” The couple is walking arm in arm in the gas lamps refraction from the town’s houses on the gently moving river and the canopy of a star filled sky. The thick impasto of sky from his loaded brush is more pronounced than in The Starry Night, but the effect here is calming and reassuring to the viewer. He has painted the stars to appear as night flowers, as we see in this beautiful detail

[IMG][/IMG]

Art historian Simon Schama describes the couple “canoodling on the threshold of infinity...what we see is what they feel.” Sadly, for Van Gogh this feeling is what he would long for all of his life but could never have. The artist’s epilepsy coupled with bipolar disorder robbed him of his ability to have a life with a wife and family, which his brother Theo had. The birth of Theo’s little boy was joyful, but also crushing to Vincent’s already fragile mental state.

The New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl, reviewing the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibit of all seventeen of the gallery’s Van Gogh works last year observed

“...What I had glimpsed in him at first turned out to be lying in wait for me. It was the value of joy, irrespective of happiness, and certainly, of intellectual pride. All good art teaches some variant of that consoling and humbling truth, which anyone might recognize.”

Twenty-eight years before Vincent painted The Starry Night a poet sitting at her window in Amherst, Massachusetts looked out upon her small world as she struggled with the storms within her brain and wrote what Vincent would eventually paint

As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here–

NOTE: The quote in the title is not Van Gogh’s. Extra credit to those of you who know the provenance of the title of this post without Googling. Another hint: “That you have but slumbered here, / While these visions did appear.”




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