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Course: Europe 1800 - 1900 > Unit 5

Lesson 4: Post-Impressionism

Van Gogh, The Starry Night

Vincent van Gogh's "Starry Night" is a vibrant depiction of a night sky, a tranquil village, and a towering cypress tree. The painting's energetic brushwork contrasts with the peaceful landscape, symbolizing the link between earthly and heavenly realms. Van Gogh's use of complimentary colors and imagination makes this artwork truly unique.

Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night, 1889 (June, Saint Rémy), oil on canvas, 73.7 x 92.1 cm (The Museum of Modern Art) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker.
Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Steven] We're on the fifth floor of the Museum of Modern Art looking at probably their most famous painting, Vincent van Gogh's "Starry Night." - [Beth] This is something that van Gogh had been interested in before he painted this particular painting. He did another version of a night sky, which is very different. In the foreground, we see the giant undulating form of a cypress tree. - [Steven] And we don't see the bottom of that cypress tree. It's cut off at the bottom edge of the frame, and so we get the sense that it must be close to us. The sky takes up almost three quarters of the canvas and it reminds me of the great Dutch landscapes of the 17th century, of artists like Ruisdael, who was interested in the movements of clouds through the sky and the play of light there. But of course this is night, the only light is from the moon and from the stars. - [Beth] And we're looking down past that cypress into a valley where we see some small cottages and a church very prominently centrally placed with a steeple that just breaks the horizon line formed by those mountains. And the village seems very humble but also embraced by the mountains behind it and that cypress in front. There's a band of lighter yellows and blues just above the hills, further protecting that landscape below. It feels protected to me at the same time that there's all this turmoil in the sky that we see in these circular brushstrokes. - [Steven] The brushwork has tremendous energy. One stroke follows another, linking to create these streams of energy through the sky. And although the paint is somewhat thick in certain areas, we can also see the canvas in certain areas. And so it is not that heavily painted, but nevertheless there was a kind of energy and velocity, a kind of dynamism as those clouds roll through the sky. - [Beth] And I think that dynamism, that energy that's in the brush work in the clouds or forms that swirl through the sky, the way that the moon emits a pulsing light, and even the stars and planets emit that brighter light than they do in reality, that for me, contrasts with the tranquility of the village below that's nestled in that valley. There is a sense of a presence of activity in the sky, which we associate with the heavens and the divine as though those things were alive and somehow protecting the village underneath, at least that's one way that I read this painting sometimes. - [Steven] And some art historians have looked then at the cypress, a tree that symbolizes death, in part because it's often found in cemeteries. - [Beth] This a kind of linking of the earthly and the heavenly with that cypress, that undulates almost like fire. - [Steven] And is mimicked by the steeple of the church in the valley. So that there's this pairing where tree and the steeple are both reaching up to the heaven. - [Beth] Van Gogh like other artists of the 1870s and '80s is thinking about complimentary colors. He's thinking about blues and yellows and oranges, and how colors can intensify one another, and work together to communicate ideas and feelings. And this is definitely not a landscape that van Gogh saw. This is something constructed from memory and from his imagination. But think about how brave this painting is, to do something with brushwork this visible, this sketchy, this energized. - [Steven] I would say this divorced from what he would have seen. There's an abstraction of form here that the artist is comfortable with which is absolutely radical. - [Beth] And if you think about so much of his work, it is images of what he could see and that he went out specifically to paint. But here this incredible bravery to do something based on his emotions, his memories, his experiences and his imagination. - [Steven] In 1889, van Gogh was in an asylum in Saint-Remy in Southern France, what had once been a monastery, and van Gogh actually had a view out his window that was relatively close to this, but there is no church there. There is no village there. - [Beth] Van Gogh is in this asylum because he suffered a series of breakdowns. He suffered from mental illness for much of his life, although it got worse after a fight with his fellow painter Gauguin, when he cut his ear. - [Steven] Van Gogh was encouraged to paint at the asylum, and was given a studio space where he had no view at all, and where this was likely painted. So this was not painted en plein air. This was not painted out of doors. What a journey this painting has taken from that room in Saint-Remy to the fifth floor of the Museum of Modern Art, reproduced around the world recognized by people everywhere. It's a fate that I don't think the artist could have ever imagined. (jazzy piano music)