What is the story behind Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night?
“I have done another landscape with olive trees, and a new study of the ‘Starry Sky’ .”
This was how Van Gogh described his latest painting in his letter to Theo Van Gogh. Although he also went on to tell his brother that he felt it to be a failure, it proved to be one of his most famous pieces of work. The painting was Starry Night.
Events that led to the creation of Starry Night in 1889?
“I am so angry with myself because I cannot do what I should like to do, and at such a moment one feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep dark well, utterly helpless.”
In 1888, suffering from recurrent episodes of depression and deep anxiety (due potentially to either his being bipolar, suffering from syphilis, a form of epilepsy or any number of the unsupported illnesses attached to his name), Vincent Van Gogh entered the last eminent stages of his life. After an unhealthy life spent in Paris where competition from other artists and a demanding art scene caused high levels of stress, drinking and a bad diet, Vincent (in search of a peaceful life), left for Arles in February. It was here that his friend and fellow artist, Paul Gauguin (who he had been friends with since around 1886), came to live with him at the Yellow House.
“As you learned from my telegram, Gauguin arrived in good health. He even gave me the impression of being in better shape than me.”
Their relationship developed into one of “student” (Van Gogh) and “mentor” (Gauguin), and they coexisted in a turbulent but extremely creative environment. However, their conflicting personalities and artistic views led to increasing friction and they parted ways after a monstrous quarrel on 23 December. As a result, Vincent in a rage severed part of his own left ear with either a razor or a knife, then proceeded to present the bloody token wrapped in paper to a young woman in a local brothel. Gauguin had seen enough and promptly headed back to Paris.
Meanwhile, Vincent’s neighbours, afraid of what the painter was capable of, wanted him out of Arles and organised a petition against him. They wanted him removed from the Yellow House where he lived, a place he once hoped to create into an artist’s mecca.
Saint-Paul-de-Mausole psychiatric hospital and ‘Starry Night’
Vincent was devastated. In April 1889 after experiencing “moods of indescribable anguish”, he left Arles and travelled to Saint-Rémy where he voluntarily admitted himself to Saint-Paul-de-Mausole psychiatric hospital. It sat amongst an area of cornfields, vineyards and olive trees, the subjects of many paintings during his stay. The ensuing year proved to be the most prolific period of his career.
View of the Asylum and Chapel at Saint Remy – “One continually hears shouts and terrible howls as of animals in a menagerie.”
Vincent had two small adjoining rooms, one of which was to be used as his studio. In June 1889, history has it that he took an oil canvass, put it on his easel and began to paint one of his most famous paintings, Starry Night. Painting from memory during daylight hours, the painting represented the view from the east-facing window of his room some time before sunrise.
Dominating the foreground is a large Cypress tree that seems to connect the earth to the sky. Cypress trees have long been associated with death in European culture and dominate many cemeteries. With only a year until his untimely and mysterious death, could this prove thoughts of his own death?
Vincent left the hospital in May 1890 and took up residency at Auberge Ravoux in the village of Auvers-sur-Oise in northern France. It was here on the morning of 29 July 1890 that he was shot in the stomach. It is not known if he was murdered, or seeing no way out of his pain, ended his own life. He died two days later.
“For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.”
In his lifetime he had no concept of what his paintings would mean to the generations that came after him. It’s a happy ending that he is now revered as one of the world’s most famous and best loved artists.