Reaching for the Stars: The Common Trends Within Vincent van Gogh’s Most Famous Pieces

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Delirious. Masterful. Impressionistic. These are all words we use to describe Vincent van Gogh and the impact he made on the art world. Though his time on earth was seen as 37 years of failure, what he left behind was a series of artwork that demonstrated pure delicacy and symbolism to his daily adventures. From the nightlife expressed in Starry Night over the Rhone to the whirling clouds and stars we see in his most well-known piece Starry Night, we can reasonably infer that van Gogh had a knack for inserting hints of his whereabouts through his infatuation with astrological symbols and orientation.

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Vincent van Gogh was born in March of 1853. Throughout his life, he struggled with self-confidence and didn’t know where he was meant to be. Being a Dutch protestant pastor’s son, he believed that he was meant to live a life in the faith. He spent many years as a missionary in Belgium. However, after unsuccessfully working as a salesman, clerk, and preacher, he began to live his life in despair (Kleiner, 2017). Van Gogh struggled with conveying his emotions and experiences with others, leaving him tucked into himself. Soon, van Gogh found his calling to be an artist. He took this opportunity to document his daily encounters and feelings that were previously hard to express. He completed his first piece The Potato Eaters, at the age of 32. On his art journey across western Europe, van Gogh encountered a few notable Impressionist artists; including Monet, Pissarro and Gaugin. He tweaked his artistic styles to match the techniques used in their works, including the prominent broken brushstrokes we first see in his Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat (Department of European Paintings, 2010). Compared to these artists, van Gogh thought himself to be a failure. During his time in Paris with Gaugin, he had a mental breakdown, resulting in him cutting off his ear with a razor. Fearing another breakdown, van Gogh opted to enter an asylum, where he spent one year painting 150 canvas’ that were primarily focused on nature and landscapes. Some of these pieces include, Irises, Roses, and The Starry Night (Department of European Paintings, 2010). According to the Smithsonian Magazine article titled “Van Gogh’s Nigh Visions” by Paul Trachtman, in 1890, less than two months before he ended his life with a gunshot, he wrote to a Paris newspaper critic, 'It is absolutely certain that I shall never do important things.' (Trachtman 2008). He only sold one painting during his life, however, after his death, he quickly became one of the most influential and beloved artists in the world.

The primary focus around van Gogh’s art was nature and landscapes, as seen in Wheatfield with Cypress, Starry Night Over the Rhone, and Wheat Field Under Clouded Sky. If we look closely at these works, and others, there is a common trend in the shapes and strokes he uses in the sky. The clouds, in particular, are not shaped perfect and floating across the horizon. Instead, they are twisted, un-patterned whirlwinds of color. Critics often relate this technique to the delirium van Gogh faced throughout his life, however, Joachim Pissarro, great-grandson of French Impressionist Camille Pissarro, and the curator of the art show over Vincent van Gogh in the New York Museum of Modern Art, makes astonishing connections between this artistic trend and the reality of van Gogh’s life. She once noted, “van Gogh never ceased to enjoy an astonishingly clear self-awareness and consciousness of what he was doing.” (Trachtman, 2008). More specifically, in Starry Night Over the Rhone, researchers suggest that the alignment of the stars in the skyline, are a direct reflection of the stars the night van Gogh created the piece. In the article “The Skies of van Gogh”, author Charles A. Whitney studies, in-depth, exactly what van Gogh was feeling that night. Whitney discusses specifically the position of the Big Dipper in this painting, claiming that it’s position can be a time keeper, meaning we can determine exactly what time and day van Gogh painted this piece. He took his curiosities to the Smithsonian Institution to explore the sky with its Zeiss planetarium. Together, they ran the sky backwards to 1888, when the painting was made. They aligned the stars in the planetarium with that of the sky in the painting, and came to the conclusion that it was painted in the end of September at 11pm. (Whitney 1986). This, of course, was no shock to Whitney and the astrologists at the Smithsonian Institution, because van Gogh was seen as a night owl. 'He lived at night,' says Pissarro. 'He didn't sleep until three or four in the morning. He wrote, read, drank, went to see friends, spent entire nights in cafés... or meditated over the very rich associations that he saw in the night. It was during the night hours that his experiments with imagination and memory went the farthest.' (Trachtman 2008). Looking back on his early years in life, it is easy to see why van Gogh lived more at night, because he saw that time as a period of reflection of his daily activities. Overtime, his paintings became more whimsical and dream-like. With each rendition came more wavy lines, bright colors, and thick layers of paint to create the perfect scene. Once again, this could be related back to the delirium he experienced prior to as well as in the asylum; however, many art critics have drawn to the conclusion that van Gogh was fully aware and diligent about each stroke he made.

As mentioned previously, van Gogh painted the Starry Night during his year in the asylum. Unlike the works mentioned, the stars and clouds weren’t just meant to be a representation of his direct location, rather, they are also used to depict his desire to dig deeper into the “vastness of the universe” (Kleiner 2017). By creating bright, radiant stars, and a massive whirlwind as the eye-catching centerpiece, he is believed to be portraying how diminutive humanity and the world truly is. In this painting, van Gogh taps more into the spiritual side of life, rather than scientific. Nine months before painting the enigmatic Starry Night, van Gogh admitted to his brother that the stars held a religious significance for him. He wrote to his brother in a letter, ““And it does me good to do difficult things. That does not prevent me from having a terrible need of- shall I say the word? - of religion”” (Whitney 1986). As a preacher’s son, it could be reasonably inferred that this religious connection is a natural occurrence due to his childhood’s primary focus on his faith, but why does it come toward the end of his life? Was van Gogh’s obsession with the night sky an illusion to the end? According to Trachtman, “The artist's focus on the relationship between dreams and reality—and life and death—had a profound meaning for him” (Trachtman, 2008). The whimsical clouds and bright stars were more than astrological symbols in the sky, they were a representation of what little life there is beyond earth. This was the harsh reality van Gogh began to illustrate in his night pieces, and is the perception he had on his life while in the asylum.

In conclusion, it is evident that van Gogh was no failure when it came to art. From the shapes of the clouds in his landscapes, to the symbolism of the star alignments in his night paintings, van Gogh proved to everyone that art can more than oil on a canvas; it can be used as a medium to portray real life experiences. Though he was portrayed as deranged and unstable due to his time in the asylum, his art shows pure brilliance and became a true inspiration to future generations of artists.

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