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An Analysis on Vincent van Gogh's Starry Night

By Melanie Lee

Click here to view 'Starry Night'.Van Gogh painted this piece in 1889 while he was in Saint Rémy seeking treatment in a mental asylum. Interestingly enough, he painted this piece from his memory and it was supposed to have been based on a constellation arrangement he had seen earlier on in the night sky of Provence. Starry Night is perhaps one of his most famous and yet most elusive works.

The first thing that I noticed was the overwhelming night sky, which takes up most of the background. Its swirling, flowing lines appear to be swishing across the background in this gentle, wavy motion and seem to be merging at the centre to form this spiral-like formation. Eleven fiery yellow stars that look like huge fireballs illuminate this whole piece and contrast with the cool blue, fluid night sky that takes on an amazing variety of shades of blue and grey. There is also the crescent moon at the top right hand corner that radiates a more orange, brighter light from the rest of the stars. The view of the night sky and village is partially blocked by this huge cypress bush in the foreground. It has this writhing quality to it and its black green colouring stands out to the rest of the relatively pastel piece. The houses are tiny and inconspicuously painted in the bottom right corner of the painting and blend in quite well with the forest and mountains. The architecture of the village is quaint and simple and no light illuminates the village, giving the impression that everyone there is probably asleep. In general, his brush strokes are heavy and thick and have this insistent, hectic rhythm to it. As a result, this painting has an illusion of constantly being in motion.

The fact that he had painted this from his mental image may have contributed to this piece having such a strong sense of great mental dislocation and emotional intensity. One almost feels as if he was hardly able to contain his feelings and that all his angst and passion seem to have spilled onto this piece. The moon and stars seem so huge that we feel that the sky is about to fall in on us. The cypress bush, a usually inconspicuous and solemn funeral plant seems almost sinister as it confronts us right smack in front of the picture. It's as if Van Gogh was creating his own kind of reality and chose to emphasise objects he felt were important to him even though this resulted in perspectives being distorted.

The painting seems to be seething with life as the fluid brushstrokes give the impression of movement. In particular, it's the night sky that seems to be the life force of this piece with its bursting dynamism. It seems as if galaxies are in motion and that the stars would plunge into the sleepy town at any moment. The stars and the sky seem to possess such great emotional intensity with its variety of strokes and colours all merging together to form a spiral-like mist in the centre.

The cypress, on the other hand, seems to somewhat dampen the dazzling effect of the night sky with its writhing, dark leaves sprawling up on the left side of the picture. It has this snaky form to it and seems totally uncharacteristic with the rest of the painting. It disturbs the whole equilibrium to what had could have been a magical depiction of a starry night. Dondis states that the human eye usually favours the lower left area of any visual field and it seems that Van Gogh had quite deliberately painted the cypress bush in such a prominent position. A possible interpretation could be that the bush was a representation of the inner anguish he was going through at that time. The turmoil he was going through might have been writhing out the intensity he had for life.

The little houses, on the other hand, seem pretty quiet. All the lights are out and everybody's asleep, unaware of the night sky that's bursting with life and the cypress bush writhing in front of them. This depicts some sort of alienation and ignorance. I feel that the sleepy village represents the rest of the world, unaware of whatever raging passions and agony Van Gogh was going through at that moment. Perhaps this is why the houses seem to appear so far away even though they are actually more or less in the foreground.

My interpretation of Starry Night is just one of the many and it remains very much an elusive work to art critics and students alike. Because nobody really knows Van Gogh's intention of painting this piece, everybody seems to be using different codes to decipher what Van Gogh was trying to bring across. One critic thought of this as a religious piece depicting a story from the Bible. In the book of Genesis, Joseph has a dream of eleven stars, the sun and moon (the moon and sun appear to be merged together here) that symbolised his brothers and parents bowing down to him. Another academic thought this painting to be a convergence of historical forces as it was during this time when there was a public fascination with astronomy and astrology with people like Jules Verne writing about travelling to the moon. For me, I've always had this sentimental idea of him as this tragic, angst-filled artist who actually wanted to do so much for humanity (he was once an evangelist) but was constantly being rejected by society. This painting communicated to me this love he had for Gods beautiful creations, and yet, there is this unmistakable sense of loneliness as if no one really saw the world as he saw it.

Of course, to understand his style of painting in Starry Night a little better, we have to look at the big picture. Vincent Van Gogh was one of the great postimpressionist artists along the likes of Cézanne and Gauguin. Postimpressionism was basically a reaction against impressionism, which ascribed to the belief that art should accurately reflect reality with natural colour and lighting. Postimpressionists believed that art is not meant to imitate form, but to create form. This means that artists of this period took a subjective view of the visual world and painted their world according to their own artistic perceptions. As Van Gogh himself said, "We may succeed in creating a more exciting and comforting nature than we can discern with a single glimpse of reality." This is why postimpressionist artists have no fixed style -- their works reflected their own unique personalities and perceptions. In Van Gogh's case, his works seemed to reflect a great emotional intensity, like that seen in Starry Night. He told his brother Theo that instead of using colours realistically, he would rather use them "more arbitrarily in order to express myself more forcibly". In particular, he liked to paint landscapes that reflected his own emotions and soul. In a way, there is this sense of liberation as he departed from the traditional artistic boundaries. Starry Night is the embodiment of Van Gogh's unique style and expression. Indeed, pieces such as these have played a major influence on modern art.

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