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Vincent Willem van Gogh (30 March 1853 - 29 July 1890) was a Dutch Post-Impressionist artist. His paintings and drawings include some of the world's best known, most popular and most expensive pieces.
Van Gogh spent his early life working for a firm of art dealers. After a brief spell as a teacher, he became a missionary worker in a very poor mining region. He did not embark upon a career as an artist until 1880. Initially, van Gogh worked only with sombre colors, until he encountered Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism in Paris. He incorporated their brighter colors and style of painting into a uniquely recognizable style, which was fully developed during the time he spent at Arles, France. He produced more than 2,000 works, including around 900 paintings and 1,100 drawings and sketches, during the last ten years of his life. Most of his best-known works were produced in the final two years of his life, during which time he cut off part of his left ear following a breakdown in his friendship with Paul Gauguin. After this he suffered recurrent bouts of mental illness, which led to his suicide.
Starry Night is perhaps Van Gogh's most popular painting. He completed the painting in June 1889, while undergoing treatment at the St. Remy de Provence mental asylum, a little over a year before his untimely and tragic suicide at the age of 37.
Starry Night (oil on canvas) first and foremost is a reflection of the turbulent and torturous combination of manic ecstasy and melancholy that battled for control of Van Gogh's mind. Even the title itself is a bit of an oxymoron, for the astral bodies depicted by Van Gogh are as bright and overstated as to almost bring the feeling of daylight to the painting. Van Gogh had intended this specifically: his aim, among others, was to render the time of day when you see the green beetles and cicadas fly up in the heat, (Van der Wolk, 1990, p. 218), no matter that painting depicted a night view from his asylum window.
Accordingly, the use of greens, and yellow (for the stars and moon), and the striking blue for the night sky, are perfect examples of Van Gogh's remarkable use of color not only in Starry Night but all his works. The artist himself was cognizant of his vibrant and unusual color technique, freely using it as a tool of self-expression instead of mere reflection: `Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I have before my eyes,' he wrote, `I use color more arbitrarily so as to express myself more forcibly'. (Pioch, 2002) He had specific thoughts about how to use color to represent the eternal distance of space, of the night sky: I paint infinity, a plain background of the richest, most intense blue that I can contrive (Van Gogh, 1888).
In Starry Night, the stars and moon themselves seem to leap into the foreground and into the consciousness of the viewer due to the unusual color choices employed to portray them.
Also, the moon and each star in the painting are not only oversized, but each possess exaggerated coronas which appear to almost be whirling, creating a sense of dizzying centrifuge-like momentum in the painting that serves to drawn in and hypnotize the observer.
They appear to possess a clockwise rotational pattern, as do the cloud formations under the stars, which also carry a sense of rightward movement. It is as if the clouds, stars, and moons are mini-hurricanes, each an individual emotional tempest which contributes to the vast sense of urgency which underlies this painting of a tableaux which, had it been captured by photograph, would likely have been a serene and tranquil landscape. The urgency is not random, however; the organization and control behind the direction of movement and momentum suggests instead an organic structure and flow to the universe, which would in turn suggest some sort of implication of divine or higher structure and power that Van Gogh may have been trying to impart into the work.
The sense of movement, whirling, and momentum are enhanced and exaggerated by what at this point in time had become something of a Van Gogh signature characteristic the large, swiped brush strokes. This signature is partially explained by Van Gogh's participation in the unfolding of the movement of impressionism, in which such broad strokes were a technique used to suggest a somewhat fantastical and exaggerated sense of reality, as opposed to capturing reality itself.
Van Gogh liked to capture the feeling of a moment, not the moment per se, to such an extent that he hated to paint a scene from memory; ironically, Starry Night was in fact a painting from memory, which may account for its heightened fantasy feel. From a more technical perspective, Van Gogh's brush stroke technique was also a conscious attempt to capture the feeling of the sorts of exaggerated lines and strokes that were found in popular wood cut works of art from earlier in the century.
The other explanation is that the nature of Van Gogh's brush strokes was a reflection of both the mental and physical aspects of his mental illness. Epilepsy, manic depression, and schizophrenia are among the ailments from which modern physicians have theorized that Van Gogh suffered. Taken alone, Starry Night may not be evidence enough of the progression of Van Gogh's illness in terms of brush strokes, but subsequent works - as Van Gogh approached the date of his suicide - feature increasingly frenzied and exaggerated - and less self-controlled - brush strokes, such those found in as Wheat Field Under Stormy Sky, Wheat Field with Crows, and the somewhat ghoulish Self-Portrait, the latter of which was completed after the artist had attempted to slice of his own ear.
Van Gogh also made fascinating use of perspective in Starry Night. The celestial elements in the painting the stars, moon, and their manic, swirling coronas, are positioned center stage, not distantly and serenely overseeing the town. The effect is to emphasize the power and awe-inspiring nature of the heavens at the expense of worldly, man-made objects.
Accordingly, the town itself appears to almost be compressed into an artificially and surreally small area of the lower right-hand section of the painting. The only two elements in the painting whose placement and perspective provide them any indication of power are the cypress tree in the foreground, which is artificially huge. (Incidentally, not all critics agree that this large dark object is indeed a cypress tree, but given the compositional similarity of Starry Night with a later Van Gogh work, May 1890's Road with Cypress and Stars, it is a reasonable conclusion to reach.)
The cypress tree is not a man-made object; it is nature-made, or divinely inspired perhaps, and soars towards the heavenly bodies. (The choice of the cypress tree seems also less of an accident when one considers that the cypress is the traditional tree of cemeteries. Of course, it is also simply possible that there was a cypress tree visible from the Van Gogh's window in the asylum, though that does not preclude its symbology.) Also notably soaring towards the heavens is the church spire in the town. The majestic spire, like the cypress tree, is exaggerated in relative size, jutting towards the heavens in respect and awe, the only man-made object imbued with power in the painting. Van Gogh's religious beliefs, however oddly they may have evolved due to experience and mental illness, are clearly on display.
Indeed, while a liberated and worldly thinker who disdained the dogma of earlier Christianity, Van Gogh was also a deeply spiritual man (he was a preacher in his 20s) who layered religious and spiritual imagery and symbology throughout his works. Starry Night is no exception. While there is little corroborating evidence from Van Gogh's own comments on the matter, the precise number of stars - eleven - in Starry Night seems to be intentional. The Biblical narrative of Joseph, in Genesis 37:9 is telling: 'Look, I have had another dream' he said, 'I thought I saw the sun, the moon and eleven stars, bowing to me.' Also, at the direct center of the painting, the swirling intersection from the cloud formation appears to form a representation of the Yin-Yang symbol found in a number of Eastern religions and philosophies such as Buddhism.
The Yin-Yang is a symbol of oppositional integration, i.e., the interdependency of male and female, light and dark, creation and destruction, good and evil. It is known that at the very least, Van Gogh was deeply impressed by the Japanese works of art he had seen in during a visit to Paris in 1886, so his inclusion of the Yin-Yang symbol may not have been an accident, and even it if were, it may have been a semi-accidental unconscious inclusion. It was not until Carl Jung's writings on the collective unconscious and the universal symbols in mankind's creative work that critical thought on unconscious metaphysical symbolism came to the forefront in the art world, but evidence seems to suggest that archetypal symbology is rife within Van Gogh's work in Starry Night, whether he intended it or not.
Perhaps, ultimately, Van Gogh knew on some level that his death was near, and in painting Starry Night he was trying to provide some measure of comfort to himself and to his loved ones. Before he had even envisioned the painting, he wrote prophetically to his brother Theo: The moon is still shining, and the sun and the evening star, which is a good thing - and they also speak of the love of God, and make one think of the words: "Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world."
The Night Café
The painting was executed on industrial primed canvas of size 30 (French standard). It depicts the interior of the cafe, with a half-curtained doorway in the center background leading, presumably, to more private quarters. Five customers sit at tables along the walls to the left and right, and a waiter in a light coat, to one side of a pool table near the center of the room, stands facing the viewer.
The five customers depicted in the scene have been described as "three drunks and derelicts in a large public room [...] huddled down in sleep or stupor." One scholar wrote, "The cafe was an all-night haunt of local down-and-outs and prostitutes, who are depicted slouched at tables and drinking together at the far end of the room.".
In wildly contrasting, vivid colours, the ceiling is green, the upper walls red, the glowing, gas ceiling lamps and floor largely yellow. The paint is applied thickly, with many of the lines of the room leading toward the door in the back. The perspective looks somewhat downward toward the floor.
In a jocular passage of a letter Van Gogh wrote his brother, Theo, the artist said Ginoux had taken so much of his money that he'd told the cafe owner it was time to take his revenge by painting the place.
In August 1888 the artist told his brother in a letter:
Today I am probably going to begin on the interior of the café where I have a room, by gas light, in the evening. It is what they call here a "café de nuit" (they are fairly frequent here), staying open all night. "Night prowlers" can take refuge there when they have no money to pay for a lodging, or are too drunk to be taken in.
In the first days of September 1888, Van Gogh sat up for three consecutive nights to paint the picture, sleeping during the day. Little later, he sent the water-colour, copying the composition and again simplyfing the colour scheme on order to meet the simplicity of Japanese woodblock prints.
Van Gogh's Cafe Terrace at Night, showing outdoor tables, a street scene and the night sky, was painted in Arles at about the same time. It depicts a different cafe, a larger establishment on the Place du Forum.
Van Gogh on the painting
Van Gogh wrote many letters to his brother Theo van Gogh, and often included details of his latest work. The artist wrote his brother more than once about The Night Café. According to Meyer Schapiro, "there are few works on which [Van Gogh] has written with more conviction."
In one of the letters he describes this painting:
I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green. The room is blood red and dark yellow with a green billiard table in the middle; there are four lemon-yellow lamps with a glow of orange and green. Everywhere there is a clash and contrast of the most alien reds and greens, in the figures of little sleeping hooligans, in the empty dreary room, in violet and blue. The blood-red and the yellow-green of the billiard table, for instance, contrast with the soft tender Louis XV green of the counter, on which there is a rose nosegay. The white clothes of the landlord, watchful in a corner of that furnace, turn lemon-yellow, or pale luminous green.
The next day (September 9), he wrote Theo: "In my picture of the Night Café I have tried to express the idea that the café is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad or commit a crime. So I have tried to express, as it were, the powers of darkness in a low public house, by soft Louis XV green and malachite, contrasting with yellow-green and harsh blue-greens, and all this in an atmosphere like a devil's furnace, of pale sulfur, And all with an appearance of Japanese gaiety, and the good nature of Tartarin."
He also wrote: "It is color not locally true from the point of view of the stereoscopic realist, but color to suggest the emotion of an ardent temperament."
The violent exaggeration of the colors and the thick texture of the paint made the picture "one of the ugliest pictures I have done", van Gogh wrote at one point. He also called it "the equivalent though different, of The Potato Eaters", which it resembles somewhat in its use of lamplight and concerns for the condition of people in need.
Soon after its execution, Van Gogh incorporated this painting into his Décoration for the Yellow House.
The work has been called one of Van Gogh's masterpieces and one of his most famous.
Unlike typical Impressionist works, the painter does not project a neutral stance towards the world or an attitude of enjoyment of the beauty of nature or of the moment. The painting is an instance of Van Gogh's use of what he called "suggestive color" or, as he would soon term it, "arbitrary color" in which the artist infused his works with his emotions, typical of what was later called Expressionism.
The red and green of the walls and ceiling are an "oppressive combination", and the lamps are "sinister features" with orange-and-green halos, according to Nathaniel Harris. "The top half of the canvas creates its basic mood, as any viewer can verify by looking at it with one or the other half of the reproduction covered up; the bottom half supplies the 'facts.'" The thick paint adds a surreal touch of waviness to the table tops, billiard table and floor. The viewer is left with a feeling of seediness and despair, Harris wrote. "The scene might easily be banal and dispiriting; instead, it is dispiriting but also terrible."
The objects of pleasure (billiard table, wine bottles and glasses) are contrasted in the picture with the "few human beings absorbed in their individual loneliness and despair", Antonia Lant commented.
The perspective of the scene is one of its most powerful effects, according to various critics. Schapiro described the painting's "absorbing perspective which draws us headlong past empty chairs and tables into hidden depths behind a distant doorway - an opening like the silhouette of the standing figure." Lant described it as a "shocking perspectival rush, which draws us, by the converging diagonals of floorboards and billiard table, towards the mysterious, courtained doorway beyond." Harris wrote that the perspective "pitches the viewer forward into the room, towards the half-curtained private quarters, and also creates a sense of vertigo and distorted vision, familiar from nightmares." Schapiro also noted, "To the impulsive rush of these converging lines he opposes the broad horizontal band of red, full of scattered objects [...]"
At the end of the XIX Century, the sunflowers were very much appreciated as decorative flowers.
The symbolized the desire to live and the idealism. Sunflowers also were one of the favorite motives for painting. Van Gogh first saw paintings of sunflowers when he was studying the classics of Barroco in Ambers. Only in August 1888, he painted six sunflower pictures. A motive he used many times after that in years to come. He wrote a letter to a friend saying that he wanted to decorate his bedroom with half of a dozen sunflowers paintings, that will shine in the wall, with the bright yellow colors found in different backgrounds from softest blue of green verone to the blue cobalt, framed with fine moldings painted in reddish orange.
The painting of sunflowers of Van Gogh usually has twelve to fourteen sunflowers (rarely less than that), in different phases of growth, inside round bars. The bars are divided in two chromatic areas, the bottom one is a narrow surface, while the top gets lost underneath the composition and the arrangement of the sunflowers.
The twelve sunflowers in a vase are painted with a flat and doughy style. The cold turquoise color of the background heightens the yellows and the yellowish brown tones and gives it a special brightness. Van Gogh repeated the same composition in the version "Sunflowers with Vase", also of 1888.
In addition, Vincent Van Gogh created several "dead nature paintings" with dry flowers and without vase, like "Dead Nature with Two Sunflowers". These did not leave as much margin for ample surfaces, but they were more adequate for his doughy stroke. In the sunflowers of they Van Gogh, the objects reflect in his volumes the tormented spirit of the painter, using the tense and curvy forms of the sunflowers as vehicle of his anguish. Not very often in the history of the art somebody has reached with as much force the forms, this function of the language of the psychic character.
There are many sunflower paintings of Van Gogh exposed in museums, like "Dead Nature with Two Sunflowers" (painted in 1887) exposed in The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art of New York, "Sunflowers with Vase" (1888) exposed in the National Gallery in London or the "Twelve sunflowers in vase" (1888), exposed in Staatsgemäldesammlung in Munich.
Café Terrace At Night
I was only interrupted by my work on a new painting representing the exterior of a night café. On the terrace there are small figures of people drinking. An immense yellow lantern illuminates the terrace, the facade, the side walk and even casts light on the paving stones of the road which take a pinkish violet tone. The gables of the houses, like a fading road below a blue sky studded with stars, are dark blue or violet with a green tree. Here you have a night painting without black, with nothing but beautiful blue and violet and green and in this surrounding the illuminated area colours itself sulfur pale yellow and citron green. It amuses me enormously to paint the night right on the spot. Normally, one draws and paints the painting during the daytime after the sketch. But I like to paint the thing immediately. It is true that in the darkness I can take a blue for a green, a blue lilac for a pink lilac, since it is hard to distinguish the quality of the tone. But it is the only way to get away from our conventional night with poor pale whitish light, while even a simple candle already provides us with the richest of yellows and oranges.