Vincent VAN GOGH | Starry night [La nuit étoilée]

Vincent VAN GOGH
The Netherlands 1853 – France 1890

Starry night
[La nuit étoilée]
1888
oil on canvas
canvas 72.5 (h) x 92.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Gift of Mr and Mrs Robert Kahn-Sriber, in memory of Mr and Mrs Fernand Moch 1975
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Van Gogh arrived in Arles in February 1888. In this small Provençal town and the surrounding countryside he was to spend an extraordinarily productive period painting, drawing and writing. He found the colours of the location—the skies, the river Rhône and the atmosphere—spellbinding, and reminiscent of the scenes found in Japanese ukiyo-e prints. The great expanse of the night sky was just as tantalising as that of the daytime, and the artist was keen to capture its majesty and its subtleties, writing to his sister in September 1888:

At present I absolutely want to paint a starry sky. It often seems to me that night is still more richly coloured than the day, having hues of the most intense violets, blues and greens. If only you pay attention to it you will see that certain stars are citron-yellow, others have a pink glow, or a green blue and forget-me-not brilliance. And without my expatiating on this theme it will be clear that putting little white dots on a blue-black surface is not enough.1

He was determined to capture the richness of the night colours on the spot, just as the Impressionists painted in situ during daylight—although jokingly he confided to his sister that, ‘Of course it’s true that in the dark I may mistake a blue for a green, a blue-lilac for a pink-lilac, for you cannot rightly distinguish the quality of a hue. But it is the only way to get rid of the conventional night scenes with their poor sallow whitish light.’2

Van Gogh painted several canvases of the night skies as an accompaniment to a cafe scene or portrait, but with Starry night he possessed the confidence to have the massive night sky hanging over a gas-lit town with reflections in the water as his principal motif, with just the small inclusion of two locals on the foreshore. Van Gogh’s true subject here is the drama and majesty of the night sky, ‘the starry sky with the Great Bear’.3 This work reveals all the wondrous colours of the sky, the reflections of the scene, and the striking contrast between the natural beauty of the stars and the artificial gas lights.

Painting the night sky was a serious preoccupation which engaged van Gogh throughout the summer months in Arles. His fears that he might not be able to meet the challenge were expressed to Bernard in a letter of June 1888:

Alas, alas, it is just as our excellent fellow Cyprien says in J.K. Huysmans’ ‘En ménage’: the most beautiful paintings are those which you dream about when you lie in bed smoking a pipe, but which you never paint.4

Despite his concerns, it is with Starry night that van Gogh came close to painting the ‘unspeakable perfection’ he so yearned to achieve—just two years before his life was cut short.

Jane Kinsman

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay exhibition book, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009

  1. Letter W 7, viewed 18 August 2009, www.vggallery.com/letters/656_V-W_W7.pdf.
  2. Letter W 7, viewed 18 August 2009, www.vggallery.com/letters/656_V-W_W7.pdf.
  3. A ‘sparkling of pink and green on the cobalt blue field of the night sky, whereas the lights of the town and its ruthless reflections are red-gold and bronzed green’, as he was to describe it to the poet Eugène Boch. 2 October 1888, letter 553b, viewed 18 August 2009, www.vggallery.com/letters/670_V-E_553b.pdf.
  4. Letter B7, viewed 18 August 2009, http://www.vggallery.com/letters/608_V-B_B7.pdf.