"This morning I saw the country from my window a long time before sunrise, with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big," van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, from France. Rooted in imagination and memory, The Starry Night embodies an inner, subjective expression of van Gogh's response to nature. In thick, sweeping brushstrokes, a flamelike cypress unites the churning sky and the quiet village below. The village was partly invented, and the church spire evokes van Gogh's native land, the Netherlands.
Gallery label from 2011.
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.
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 35.