Iconic Artwork: The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh – Art History, Post-Impressionism, European Art, Western Art

The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh
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The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh. Image by Prawny from Pixabay

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The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh

With this essay, I am introducing my new Iconic Artwork series, in which I will be discussing the greatest and most iconic artworks in art history with a brief article on it. Since most of you out there do not have enough time to read long essays and articles that never seem to end (like most of my articles), I hope to keep the articles in this series short and sweet.

And what better artwork to start this new series with than Vincent van Gogh‘s iconic masterpiece, The Starry Night?

The Starry Night is one of the most famous and influential artworks in history and popular culture. In this article, we shall discuss the iconic painting with a few questions for your benefit.

Let us begin!

What is The Starry Night?

In case you know literally nothing about art or have been living under a rock since you were born, you might have this question. Allow me to address it.

The Starry Night is an oil-on-canvas painting made by the Dutch Post-Impressionist painter, the one and only, Vincent van Gogh, who went on to become one of the greatest and most influential artists in Western art after his death. The Starry Night was painted in June 1889, when Van Gogh was in a lunatic asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.

Van Gogh had admitted himself into the Saint-Paul Asylum in March of 1889 after having suffered a major nervous breakdown in December of the previous year, which culminated in him cutting off his left ear.

As the asylum was mostly empty at the time, Van Gogh was given a separate room on the ground floor to use as his painting studio. It was in this studio that he would go on to paint The Starry Night, along with some of his most well-known works such as Irises, View of the Asylum and Chapel of Saint-Rémy, and Olive Trees with yellow sky and Sun.

The Starry Night depicts the view from the east-facing window of his room in the asylum just before sunrise. He also included a village in the painting which was not actually a part of the view from his room.

While creating the painting, he wrote to his brother Theo that he had begun a new study of a starry sky.

Is the view depicted in The Starry Night unique to the painting?


As it turns out, Van Gogh had painted several variations of the same view he saw from his bedroom window. It is estimated that he painted around 21 variations of the same view at different times of the day and under different weather conditions.

He painted the view at sunrise, moonrise, rainy days, overcast days, windy days, and sunny days as well. The Starry Night just happens to be one of these variations.

In 15 out of the 21 variations, the cypress trees are visible beyond the far wall bordering the wheat field, while in the remaining 6, which includes The Starry Night, the cypress trees are much closer in view.

One pictorial element uniting all the variations is the diagonal line coming in from the right depicting the low rolling hills of the Alpilles mountains.

What makes The Starry Night unique then?

That’s a good question. The element that makes The Starry Night unique when compared to the other variations is that it is the only nocturne in the series. Nocturne, in art terms, basically means a painting of a night scene.

Scholars also believe that the brightest star in the painting, that is the one to the right of the cypress tree, is actually Venus, which is said to have been visible at dawn in that region in the spring of 1889. This can be further confirmed by a letter Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, in which he describes seeing the big bright morning star before sunrise. Venus is at times known as the morning star.

Another element unique to the painting is the village, which was not visible from his bedroom window. Scholars suggest that the village in the painting is based on a sketch he made from a hillside above the village of Saint-Rémy.

The sky in the painting was painted with cobalt blue and ultramarine, and the stars were painted with zinc yellow and Indian yellow.

What did Van Gogh himself think of the painting?

Well, regarding the actual meaning behind The Starry Night and its true interpretation, Van Gogh did not really say much at all. He just briefly and passingly mentioned the painting a couple of times in letters to his brother, but nothing significant.

In fact, Van Gogh did not consider the painting to be any good and even referred to it as a failure in a letter to French painter Émile Bernard. And when he was sending a list of paintings to his brother in Paris, he decided not to send three paintings to save money on postage, one of which was The Starry Night. The reason he held it back was that he did not think much of the painting.

So what is the true meaning behind the painting?

Several different and interesting interpretations of The Starry Night have been put forward over the years by art scholars and historians who have been studying the painting and its artist for years.

Most scholars agree that The Starry Night is a visionary painting for its time, one that was conceived and created in a state of agitation and under the pressure of feeling, inspired by a religious mood.

The religious mood part was confirmed by Van Gogh himself. In a letter to his brother after painting Starry Night Over the Rhône, he wrote that he felt a tremendous need for religion and so he went outside at night to paint the stars.

Scholars also agree that it is an expressionist painting, observing its strong expressive form and hallucinatory character. They also regard the painting to have a religious subject, such as a reference to the eleven stars in one of Joseph’s dreams in the Old Testament Book of Genesis, or a reference to the New Testament Book of Revelation that reveals an apocalyptic vision. The painting is considered an expression of Van Gogh’s deepest religious feelings.

Van Gogh was also believed to be obsessed with an afterlife on stars. This too may have inspired the subject of the painting.

Needless to say, there are countless other theories and interpretations of The Starry Night, too many to mention in this short article. To this very day, scholars come up with variations of existing interpretations and oftentimes completely new interpretations, further intensifying the study of the iconic artwork.

How did the painting acquire its current iconic status and popularity?

Much like every other artwork by Van Gogh, The Starry Night was not a success in his lifetime, nowhere close to being even remotely popular.

The real recognition and admiration for the painting began only after Van Gogh’s death in July 1890. The Starry Night‘s journey to iconic status was an exceptionally long and winding one.

After initially holding the painting back to save on postage, in September 1889, Van Gogh sent the painting to his brother in Paris, along with a few other paintings. Sadly, on 29th July 1890, Van Gogh died at the age of 37.

Barely six months later, his brother died too, leaving all of his paintings in the care of his brother’s widow, Jo.

In 1900, Jo sold the painting to French art critic and painter Julien Leclerq, who in turn sold it to French artist Claude-Émile Schuffenecker. In 1906, Jo bought back the painting from him and sold it to the Oldenzeel Gallery in Rotterdam, and was then owned by a certain Georgette van Stolk until 1938. Van Stolk then sold the painting to French art dealer Paul Rosenberg, who then sold it to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the year 1941.

As interest in Van Gogh and his artworks increased over the years, and as scholars began studying his artworks with seriousness, The Starry Night grew in popularity. Somewhere along this long journey, and after it, The Starry Night managed to achieve immortality by capturing the popular imagination.

What is the painting’s legacy today?

Today, The Starry Night is regarded as one of the greatest and most influential paintings in Western art. It is one of the most famous and instantly recognizable paintings of all time, up there with Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

One of the greatest paintings of Post-Impressionism and Expressionism, The Starry Night is widely considered Van Gogh’s masterpiece, his greatest, most influential work. It has cemented his reputation and legacy as one of the greatest and most significant artists of all time.

What more could an artist ask of their artwork?