"These last three months do seem so strange to me. Sometimes moods of indescribable mental anguish, sometimes moments when the veil of time and the fatality of circumstances seemed to be torn apart for an instant." —Vincent van Gogh - an excerpt from a letter he penned to his brother, Theo, on March 29, 1889.
In late 1888, Vincent van Gogh began to experience moments of mania and violent aggression. His friend, Paul Gauguin--another brilliant artist--was staying with Van Gogh and said that even he noticed his strange and scary behavior. The exact details of what really happened aren't known for sure, but what is clear is Van Gogh was struggling with some inner-demons that manifested themselves in gruesome fashion. Yes, I'm referring to when he cut his ear off with a razor and had it delivered to a woman at a brothel he and Gauguin liked to frequent.
After being found unconscious by police the next morning, he was taken to a local hospital in Arles where he was treated. It was then that Van Gogh was diagnosed as experiencing "acute mania with generalised delirium". From there, the downward spiral began and eventually, Van Gogh checked himself into an asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, the birthplace of Nostradamus. His room faced the east and it is said that he was so inspired by the view, he churned out numerous paintings and drawings of it. This is one of those paintings.
The Starry Night, by Vincent Willem van Gogh (1853-1890), is an oil on canvas, post-impressionist painting which was completed in 1889. It depicts the French town of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence where he resided as a patient at a local asylum. There he had a studio on the ground floor, and a bedroom on the second floor. Of the more than twenty-one paintings Van Gogh did from the asylum, this is one of the most famous and obviously one of the most well-known pieces in history. Since the scene with the cypress tree in the foreground and hill-line in the background has been verified to be of the view from his bedroom window, and he was not allowed to use paint in his bedroom, it is believed that he first sketched this piece using charcoal or ink on paper, and then later painted it in his studio. The brightest star just to the right of the tree is actually Venus which astronomers have verified was visible at that time in that region. What's not completely accurate, however, is view of the town (which was not visible from the asylum), and the waning crescent moon which was actually waning gibbous at that time. Experts feel he used previous drawings or paintings to add in the town, and gave an artistic interpretation of the moon.
Imperfections and speculation aside, what is powerful about this piece is the dancing, swirling colors and seeming serenity the painting gives off. There's a certain tranquility about it, and at first glance, one feels at peace and in awe of this giant universe. Looking deeper at the details, though, I get a clear sense of his madness. When I inspected an extremely high-resolution version of this piece, there was something about the dark lines and angles of the buildings that spoke to me. They seemed to portray Van Gogh's mania in the way he appears to have obsessed over the detail. What's even more frightening are two of the lit windows just below and to the right of the church. Though there are a handful of windows glowing from candlelight, those two in particular appear to have ghostly figures in them looking his direction - figures similar to Skrik. I don't take them to be a fluke, either, because in great detail, you can see how much he labored to get the brush strokes and coloring just right. I also contrast this detail with the fact that the window to the church is stark black indicating that no one is there.
Any form of mental disorder is no joke so I don't share these impressions lightly. Van Gogh is easily one of my most favorite artists of all time, and though I am not a fan of all of his pieces, this particular one was one of the first I learned about when I was a kid and my passion for art began to grow. To me, it's awe-inspiring, and it's also a metaphor for human life. On the surface and at quick glance, many seem okay and to be moving along in life in rhythmic harmony. Like the waves of color swirling in the night sky, we dance and sway through each day never letting on about what's really going on in the dark recesses of our minds. But when you examine things more closely, you begin to see the brokenness and fear. In a way, I think this is what makes this painting all the more beautiful because it isn't just about oil paints on a canvas, but an example of how all of us can be at one time or another. Am I stretching a bit here? Sure, you can say that. Am I accurate in my interpretation? Who knows? But that's how The Starry Night speaks to me and that's why art exists. It stirs our minds and imaginations. It speaks to us . . . and when it speaks to me, I really want to listen.