The Starry Night

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Vincent van Gogh

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The Starry Night

Vincent van Gogh. The Starry Night. Saint Rémy, June 1889. Oil on canvas, 29 x 36 1/4" (73.7 x 92.1 cm). Acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest

Audio Program excerpt

MoMA Audio: Collection

2008

Curator, Joachim Pissarro: One might ask oneself what makes this particular painting so much a subject of love and admiration. And it is probably due to the fact that Van Gogh here does address some of the universal concerns that we all feel. He's thinking about his own destiny.

Director, Glenn Lowry: In the foreground are the dark silhouettes of cypress trees, often found in local cemeteries.

Curator, Joachim Pissarro: And these trees that are drawn almost like flames of fire very much allude to Van Gogh's ongoing concern with afterlife, with eternity, with death, and with all these different forces which indeed he does associate with the night.

And the way it is expressed here is not just through a particular symbol, like the cypresses, or the spire of this church. You have the quietness of this village in the middle of the night versus this unbelievable unfolding of swirling waves of energy that are turning upon themselves. It's a painting that renews itself ceaselessly. It's a painting that constantly moves within its own static frame.

The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 35

Van Gogh's night sky is a field of roiling energy. Below the exploding stars, the village is a place of quiet order. Connecting earth and sky is the flamelike cypress, a tree traditionally associated with graveyards and mourning. But death was not ominous for van Gogh. "Looking at the stars always makes me dream," he 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."

The artist wrote of his experience to his brother Theo: "This morning I saw the country from my window a long time before sunrise, with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big." This morning star, or Venus, may be the large white star just left of center in The Starry Night. The hamlet, on the other hand, is invented, and the church spire evokes van Gogh's native land, the Netherlands. The painting, like its daytime companion, The Olive Trees, is rooted in imagination and memory. Leaving behind the Impressionist doctrine of truth to nature in favor of restless feeling and intense color, as in this highly charged picture, van Gogh made his work a touchstone for all subsequent Expressionist painting.

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