My rendition of Starry Night
“Just as we take the train to go to Tarascon, we take death to go to a star.” Vincent Van Gogh (Letter to Theo 1888)
You are like a star in a starry night. I can imagine you up there hovering, weaving yourself into the minds and souls of people. Flowing down like the mistral wind possessing us with your intensity and injecting us with just a little of your madness. You are now a celebrity. A far cry from your days of wandering around Provence seeing the colours in the landscape others could not. An artist of deep intensity, who with quick dramatic strokes captured all of nature’s elements. We see the wind in the swirling clouds and wriggling houses, storms rising high above wheat fields, the rain plummeting down and we get caught up in the turbulence of a starry night. An artist considered to be a mad, little man, with flaming red hair and intense green eyes. Recognised as the town oddity, to be laughed at and teased at every turn.
My guess is that even in death your determination is such that it pushes unseen boundaries. Allowing your spirit to linger, floating around in an artists’ purgatory. Still a little tortured, still obsessed and even a little outraged that despite pouring your heart and soul on to the canvas, with such intensity and sensitivity, the everyday person could only see your genius and value after you violently extracted yourself from this world.
I for one can’t blame you. Artists ever since have been trying to find a smidgen of your vision and I can’t think of one who has come close to capturing the essence of our natural world with anywhere near the same sense of freedom, passion or colour, with maybe the exception of Brett Whiteley. In his painting the Blossom Tree he appears to capture a vision of your spirit with brush at the ready, caught in vortex of swirling elements on an interestingly, somewhat subdued backdrop of your signature colour, yellow.
Foolishly, I thought I might have a go. Here I was reading about you, scribbling away notes about your life, all the specific details, hoping that I would find a glimmer of something no one else had seen. It is in your paintings that I feel the real you can be explored and yet even that is difficult. Is it an intangible thing? A feeling so unique to an individual that one can only glean a hint at the artists desire, the rest is our own connection impressed upon the work. For we can only be mesmerised by the feeling the painting evokes for us, and must find our own way to connect to this world.
As with your most famous of works, Starry Night, the painting that is the favourite of many, one you apparently called a study, one you glazed over in letters, not one you felt compelled to share your thoughts on, except to say in a letter to Bernard Emile, “once again I allow myself to do stars too big, a new setback and I’ve enough of that.” I wondered why you had enough of that. As you stated in a letter to Theo “The sight of stars at night always makes me dream.” Starry Night is so representational of a dreamscape, was that what you had in mind, when you started this painting? If so Vincent, I wanted a piece of that dream so I decided to paint my own rendition. I needed to see if there was a chance that I could capture a sense of just what you were feeling as you painted this work.
In Starry Night, the viewer cannot help but get caught up in the chaotic maelstrom. I say chaotic, but yet there is something so precise in the way you executed this painting. You said yourself you could only paint in moments of lucid thought, afraid, that at any moment the madness would take hold. So you painted frantically to capture the truth before the darkness descended upon you.
I decided to under-paint my picture, leaving spaces for the light to shine through. I know this wasn’t your technique, as in many paintings you deliberately left parts of the canvas unpainted. I outlined the cypress trees, the hills and the village. It was then I started with a fast paced attack at the canvas, with quick purposeful strokes, one after another, after another, conscious of the changing colours and the way each stroke of colour merged into the other to create a weaving path through the sky. Suddenly the white, the yellow and then the blue swirled into a kaleidoscope of colour pulling me into this vision. The brightness of yellow flashed before my eyes.
Your yellow, stark, almost overpowering, the colour that flooded your canvas, when you moved to Arles and suddenly found that glorious sun. Yellow burst forth from every direction, you told your friend Bernard Emille, you saw everything in a yellow light. I could almost feel you pulling it out of the night sky as I painted as if still searching for that light in the infinite darkness or maybe you just wanted me to get the simultaneous contrast right because as you said, “there is no blue without yellow.” Nor light without dark, how well you knew that. You were a living contrast of light caged in an outline of dark.
As I tried keeping all my strokes level, I felt the pangs of anxiety begin, each jutted stroke quickly striking and then withdrawn, played like a soft jackhammer in my brain. Try as I might to quickly stab the paint on to the canvas, at every step I felt I was losing my way. I was overwhelmed with a sudden onslaught of nerves and doubt, that this was an impossible task I’d undertaken. Surely you must have stepped back and taken a breath. I needed to slow down and find my own way. I think you did too, maybe sensing a foreboding. You said to Emile you found a danger in abstraction, feeling abstractions would make you soft. You may well have been right.
Some say Starry Night is a good indication of your mind set; thinking it had everything to do with your insanity. Others refute it, such as Robert Hughes, saying you knew exactly what you were doing, that it is an accomplished painting. I tend to agree with the latter. I believe those famous swirls are just another impression of the mistral that is so evident in your other paintings such as Wheatfield with Cypress, where the clouds swirl and wheat rises and bends like a Mexican wave. Starry Night is a combination of the images you loved so much, the night sky, the cypress tree, the sleepy village, oblivious to the beauty swirling above them. A step into imagination Gauguin so often encouraged you to try while you lived together in the yellow house.
I can understand why you may have felt discouraged by this painting, possibly it frightened you having to let go of reality and search your imagination. You painted so often on the spot, painting vigorously, to capture the true essence of the moment. I think Starry Night gave you opportunity to pause and reflect. From my point of view slowing down and being more deliberate with my strokes was the only way to regain some sense of equilibrium and finish.
Although you felt unease with abstraction, I don’t think this is your madness splashed on the canvas. Your attacks frightened you. I could not see you actively seeking them out. You found the darkness within something you needed to purge. This is your revenge against the moods that so often inflicted pain upon you. You said as much to your sister, Willemien, “I wish to take my revenge by doing brilliant colour, well arranged and resplendent.” From these few words, it is evident you did not let your illness control your creative ideals. In your paintings we see the real Vincent, not the mad artist persona so often impressed upon your memory.
Vincent you faced your many demons on a daily basis. You fought them with every stroke of your brush. In Starry Night, despite your fear of where it may lead you, you kept control, held back and produced maybe your most thoughtful work. You may not have been aware of it at the time. I can now look at this painting and admire your courage. You stepped into the unknown and won. Maybe that’s what people feel when they look at this painting, a feeling of hope in an otherwise bleak world.
How did they miss you Vincent? In all your work you evoke a connection with the world around you, injecting such bright colours as your deliberately exaggerated yellow, almost like you needed to paint a smile on the face of the world. You were more than the mad little man. You were an artist on a pilgrimage, who had such empathy for the workers, who captured the sadness in empty chairs and the oddness of sunflowers. You illuminated your world so we too could walk through the passage of time, into your quiet, sun filled days of a village full of life, people going about their tasks on a brightly coloured landscape. “I believe that at present we must paint nature’s rich and magnificent aspects, we need good cheer, happiness, hope and love.” How well you succeeded in giving us all these things and a star to search for on a starry night. Thank you, Vincent.
© Dianne Turner 2012
Cabanne, P. Vincent Van Gogh. Italy: Konecky & Konecky, n.d.
Field, D M. Van Gogh. Hertfordshire: Regency House Publishing, 2005.
Gogh, Vincent Van. “Letter to Bernard Emille.” Arles: http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let596/letter.html, 12 April 1888.
—. “Letter to Bernard Emille.” http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let587/letter.html, 18 March 1888.
—. “Letter to Bernard Emille.” http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let622/letter.html, 7 June 1888.
—. “Letter to Bernard Emille.” 26 November 1889. http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let822/letter.html.
—. “Letter to Theo Van Gogh.” 10 July 1888. http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let638/letter.html.
—. “Letter to Theo Van Gogh.” 18 June 1889. http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let782/letter.html.
—. “Letter to Willemien Van Gogh.” http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let678/letter.html, 14 September 1888.
Hughes, R. Nothing If Not Critical. London: Collins Harvill, 1990.
Levin, A. “Before Vincent Van Gogh could make what would become…” Ocala Star (2008). Document URL: http://search.proquest.com.dbgw.lis.curtin.edu.au/docview/390328486?accountid=10382.
Van Gogh, Vincent. Starry Night. MOMA New York. Vincent Van Gogh: Pierre Cabanne. June 1889. Oil on Canvas.
Van Gogh, Vincent. Wheat Field with Cypresses. Vincent Van Gogh by Pierre Cabanne. June 1889. Oil on Canvas.
Whiteley, Brett. The Blossom Tree. http://www.escapeintolife.com/art-reviews/in-dialogue-with-the-muse-of-art-history-brett-whiteley/. 1971-82. Mixed Media