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The Starry Night. 1889. By Vincent Van Gogh. Oil on Canvas. 74 cm x 92cm

Ever caught a glimpse of the exceptionally beautiful expanse hovering above us - a night sky worth being enchanted by? The night sky can sometimes be a beauty to behold and Van Gogh probably shared these sentiments when he looked at the sky on that night in 1889. After a heated argument with a friend of his who lived with him at the time, Van Gogh severed off his own ear and later admitted himself into the Saint-Paul asylum in France. The troubled artist was taunted by depression, anxiety and a strong desire to fit into a world that found him pretty absurd. Born into a family of art and religion, he was expected to follow suit. All his attempts at this failed and this caused him great distress. Legend has it that the artist was so depressed that he drank yellow paint so he could be happy.

While in the asylum, the Dutch artist wrote several letters to Theo, his younger brother who supported him financially and emotionally. It was from there that he painted most of his iconic paintings, including the Starry Night.


If you looked out the east-facing iron-barred window of his room in the asylum just as Van Gogh did, you may realize that the Starry Night was not merely a product of observation but was largely influenced by his memory and imagination.

Van Gogh’s Starry Night captivates us even more because he succeeded in showing us this scene through his eyes and mind. Here we see the night sky the way he does. One cannot help but be mesmerized by the overall composition. There is a sense of a quiet night with a rather turbulent sky. With a painting technique called Impasto, Van Gogh used thick undiluted paint to create a texture of visible brush strokes. This helped him maintain density in the painting as well as keeping the colours in their raw state. The result is a very expressive sky made of swirls of varying shades of blue and white. The sky is adorned by a crescent moon to the right and a number of yellow eddies representing stars. The largest is believed to be Venus, which he described in his letter to Theo as ‘The morning star’. Some suggest the turbulence in the sky were representations of what he felt due to his mental illness.

From his window, he would not have been able to see the town below. This quiet town is said to be mainly from Van Gogh’s memory of his homeland, the Netherlands. To the left corner of the painting are large dark cypresses that greatly contrast the bright stars. Cypresses are often related to cemeteries and death and so many speculate that this represented a link between the earth (death) and heaven (life) - a sense of hope and escape from his life.

Although Van Gogh’s art was influenced by his mental illness, he was mainly inspired by nature. In his opinion, art and nature are so intertwined that one cannot be a great artist without being in touch with nature. He also became greatly fascinated with painting night scenes. In one of his letters to Theo, he wrote, ‘ It seems to me that the night is much more alive and richly coloured than the day…The problem of painting night scenes and effects on the spot and actually by night interests me enormously’.

 ‘ It seems to me that the night is much more alive and richly coloured than the day…The problem of painting night scenes and effects on the spot and actually by night interests me enormously’.

A very admirable tool Van Gogh had was his mastery of colour. With this, he went beyond merely reproducing his environment on canvas to creating a rather beautiful merger between the real and the imagined. He studied nature enough to know which colours corresponded with what he saw but was daring enough to augment them to make them more aesthetically stimulating. Although Starry night is currently recognized as one of the world’s most well-known works of art, Van Gogh thought very little of it when he painted it. He barely mentioned it in the letter to Theo concerning the paintings he finished during that period.

While alive, he only managed to sell one out of more than 900 paintings. His style of painting was criticized as haphazard and childish. Perceived as the ‘mad’ artist, Van Gogh lived a poor tragic life with an unwavering desire to keep painting despite receiving no recognition. In 1890, the painter shot himself in the stomach dying two days later.

If I could bring an artist back to life, it would be Van Gogh. He unknowingly blazed a trail that still lights the path of self-expression for many artists today. Certainly Van Gogh would be extremely surprised if he could see the impact he has had on art.

Today his paintings are some of the most expensive paintings ever sold with Starry Night hanging on a wall in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

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