Starry Night is, by far, the most popular painting by the 19th century Dutch post-impressionist painter Van Gogh. It was his magnum opus — his most important work — as later judged by observers. Van Gogh himself, however, thought the painting was a failure. But Starry Night would be the painting that the world would associate with the illustrious name Vincent Van Gogh.
But there is another well-known painting named Starry Night, namely, Starry Night Over the Rhône, which one shouldn’t confuse with the Starry Night. Van Gogh painted Starry Night Over the Rhône (September 1888) at Arles, less than a year before he painted Starry Night (June 1889) while confined at the Saint Paul De Mausole after he had cut off his ear. Starry Night Over the Rhône gives us a backdrop as to the nocturnal (night time) painting style Van Gogh had been experimenting on at the time.
He wrote to his younger brother, Theo, his financial backer, about Starry Night Over the Rhône in this manner,
“The sky is green-blue, the water is royal blue… The town is blue and violet. The gaslight is yellow, and its reflections are red-gold and go right down to green-bronze… Against the green-blue field of the sky the Great Bear had a green and pink sparkle whose discreet paleness contrasts with the harsh gold of the gaslight.”
Van Gogh was a prodigious artist who keenly understood the relationship of colors, shades, and contrasts to convey his messages. Messages that lodged deep in his thoughts.
Four things meet the eye outright in Starry Night, among other finer details. One, the most obvious, the orbs and swirls — the starry night itself. Two, the color contrasts; because it is a nocturnal painting, the contrast of yellow and harsh gold against the dark backdrop of blue to violet immediately catches the attention. Three, the spires of the dominant Cypress tree on the left foreground, and that of the church steeple at the center — both touch the heavens above. And lastly, the silent neighbourhood or countryside community with houses, olive groves, and cascading hills.
Amidst the mundane affairs of daily existence in ones community, there is a nature (a cypress tree shaped like a flaming fire) that reaches to the skies; and a religion (a church with a spire) that prompts one’s soul to search beyond natural, physical existence for meaning. However, there is a palpable uncertainty and foreboding judgment revealed in the heavens. Thus, there is no real assurance; but an ongoing perpetual turmoil of a troubled soul.
As Van Gogh wrote to Theo his brother regarding Starry Night, “We take death to go to a star.”