Ever since I was little, art has allowed imagination run wild. As someone who actively enjoys making and viewing art, I can relate to Vincent van Gogh’s emotions while he was painting because my emotions drive my art as well. I remember seeing The Starry Night for the first time, and I was transfixed by its swirls and stars and by the emotions I felt within myself. I look to the swirls and the sky, and I feel like I am floating on the cool midnight current of the small, articulate brushstrokes. I look at the stars and I feel their radiating light through the warmth of their bright color. I see the black cypress tree, with its branches erupting upwards to the sky, and I tell myself that dark times cannot destroy me. I see the ordinary town and I am reminded to never forget where I came from. Every time I see the painting, I still feel the same emotions.
During the Post-Impressionist era, Vincent van Gogh painted The Starry Night while in Asylum at Saint-Remy in 1889. The painting is considered the third part of a series that is preceded by Starry Night over the Rhone and Café Terrace at Night, both of which also include a starry night sky. What makes The Starry Night so appealing? Is it the way the stars shine? Or the contrast between the bright sky and the cypress tree? For me, it is the undeniable magic that all art can conveys: emotion told by the the artist to the viewer.
While Vincent van Gogh was working on the painting, Vincent and Theo, his brother, exchanged many letters, in which they discussed painting and art, but van Gogh never addressed his work in detail, and The Starry Night was no different. In one letter he wrote, “This morning I saw the country from my window a long time before sunrise, with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big.” He mentions in another letter that he began “a new study of a starry sky” and “It is not a return to the romantic or to religious ideas… more than is apparent, by colour and a more spontaneous drawing than delusive accuracy, one could express the purer nature of a countryside…” (Letter 595). Vincent van Gogh did not want The Starry Night to be romantic or religious or accurate. The countryside captured van Gogh, and he wanted to capture it back in oil perfection. This may have been the inspiration for The Starry Night, but he never goes in depth with his thoughts.
It is no secret that van Gogh was not fazed by the thought of death. He once told his brother Theo, “The difference between happiness and unhappiness! Both are necessary and useful, as well as death and disappearance…it is so relative- and life is the same” (Letter 607). His outlook of death is apparent in The Starry Night with the cypress tree, which is traditionally aligned with graveyards and mourning. The cypress tree connecting the stars ties directly with what van Gogh said, “Why, I ask myself, shouldn’t the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France? Just as we take the train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star” (Museum of Modern Art). The cypress tree is the death train to reach the starry map of the night sky. In this sense, we as viewers can connect with the artist’s emotions towards death. As we grow as people, life goes on and we begin to die. As we die, we reach for the stars, much like the cypress tree.
As van Gogh stated, “It is not the language of painters but the language of nature which one should listen to….The feeling for the things themselves, for reality, is more important than the feeling for pictures” (Vincent van Gogh Gallery). This is evident in The Starry Night in the way van Gogh feels the need to have more “spontaneous drawing” instead of “delusive accuracy” of what the scene really looks like, which allows for true feelings to be seen in between the strokes of the paintbrush from the moon, to the town, to the cypress tree. Not only does he take his own advice while he paints, but he also reminds other artists that listening to themselves and feeling nature is more important than trying to create a masterpiece without any imperfections. This impacts me because I am both an artist and a perfectionist, which is a difficult combination at times as I struggle to capture what I see before me. I have figured out that, although my particular work doesn’t look like what others see, it is something that captivated me. Just because it isn’t perfectly accurate, I know that my emotions are on the canvas. At the end of the day is that what art is all about? Emotion?
Some people may just see a blue swirled sky, a yellow moon with glowing orbs, and a black flame-like thing on the left side. If that’s all that people saw, then it wouldn’t be the most famous painting in the world. With The Starry Night, Vincent van Gogh must have done something right to appeal to the entire human population. There is no disputing that the painting is truly a work of art, but there is more to it than just pretty colors. Past the stars, traveling through the currents of the paint, reaching farther than the cypress, is the heart of art, which is emotion. It is one thing to feel something while you create art, it is another to invoke emotions in the viewer as well. To do both, well… that is magical.