Though the artist known as Vincent Van Gogh has an arsenal of masterpieces to his name, few would argue that his most celebrated piece is Starry Night. Painted from his first-floor room at an asylum, where he had committed himself after a mental breakdown (during which he famously cut off part of his own ear), it depicts the night sky as seen from his window. The largest of the stars, scientists have now determined, is more likely the planet Venus. Van Gogh added the village from his own imagination because he felt it was needed.
Interestingly, considering the enduring popularity of Starry Night, Van Gogh wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic about his work. He described it to his brother Theo as a “failure” and is reported to have written: “All in all the only things I consider a little good in it are the Wheatfield, the Mountain, the Orchard, the Olive trees with the blue hills and the Portrait and the Entrance to the quarry, and the rest says nothing to me.” Rather than disagree, like so many art enthusiasts who have come after, his brother is said to have returned: “I clearly sense what preoccupies you in the new canvases like the village in the moonlight… but I feel that the search for style takes away the real sentiment of things.”
Unfortunately, Van Gogh would never experience the love and captivation art lovers would feel for his most beloved work. Only in death did his paintings receive widespread notoriety. Starry Night, now displayed in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, is by far his most popular piece and is visited by thousands of art enthusiasts every year.
But what is it about Starry Night that has left audiences captivated for the decades since Van Gogh’s death?
The Appeal of Starry Night
Like any great piece of art, explaining why it is so popular is difficult to do. Great art speaks to different people in different ways. It may have to do with the mystery and madness that surrounds Van Gogh’s life. There is something enthralling about someone on the brink of madness. The tortured artist who was Vincent Van Gogh is perhaps one of history’s most prime examples of a misunderstood genius – only appreciated after his life was long over. His entire life, and career, was marred by struggle and critics who did not appreciate his work. Starry Night was created during the height of his creation, but during a time when he was enduring major psychological issues. This fact alone makes Starry Night a captivating painting, because one cannot help but wonder what went on in Van Gogh’s mind during the painting. Starry Night, like many of Van Gogh’s paintings, was done in an impressionist style. This was in contrast to other painters of the time, who focused on more realistic and photographic paintings. Van Gogh, instead, focused on an idealist version of what he saw, and the feelings a place or item evoked within him. This also meant that he had the freedom of adding creative embellishments, which is what he did with the addition of the cypress tree in the foreground.
The cypress tree was a source of fascination for Van Gogh (as you can see from his painting Wheat Field With Cypresses pictured above), and one might wonder what feelings its addition was meant to create in the painting’s viewer. Cypress trees were most commonly known as symptoms for death, which would lead one to believe that Starry Night was a sad or even ominous depiction of a village before daybreak. Perhaps the morning was harbinger of death, or perhaps the impending sunrise represents hope of a new day after the dark night of loss.
A deeper look at how Van Gogh himself viewed death hints that the cypress tree’s presence is a symbol of hope, however. He is quoted as saying: Looking at the stars always makes me dream. Why, I ask myself, shouldn’t the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France? Just as we take the train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star.” Here, it appears that he may have viewed death as a starting point toward something brighter and more beautiful than mortal life can provide.
Captivating Brush Strokes
Still some are drawn to Starry Night because of its style. Van Gogh used thick brush strokes and a stunning contrast of colors in a way that is abstract enough to draw the viewer in and invites him to come up with his own interpretations of what the dark cypress looming ominously over the small village or the swirls of bright stars and heavenly bodies could possibly mean. Even so, it is also realistic enough that the viewer can tell what each item is meant to represent in the real world and offers them a new way of looking at the night sky out their own windows.
One may suppose that part of Starry Night’s enduring appeal is that these captivating colors, brush strokes, and textures were inspired by something as common as the night sky. That Van Gogh took something so seemingly simple and unremarkable and turned it into something of such beauty allows each of us to look at the world with a new lens to appreciate the beauty that surrounds us.
If you’d like to enjoy the classic beauty of Starry Night in your own home, check out our Van Gogh Starry Night MOVA Globe for a truly unique interpretation of Van Gogh’s most iconic painting.