The Unexpected Math Behind Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”

If you’ve taken a good art history course on the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, you’ve inevitably encountered Vincent van Gogh’s 1889 masterpiece “Starry Night,” which now hangs in the MoMA in New York City. The painting, the museum writes on its web site, “is a symbolic landscape full of movement, energy, and light. The quietness of the village contrasts with the swirling energy of the sky…. Van Gogh’s impasto technique, or thickly applied colors, creates a rhythmic effect—the picture seems to constantly move in its frame.” Artistically, van Gogh managed to capture movement in a way that no artist had ever quite done it before. Scientifically, it turns out, he was on to something too. Just watch the new TED-ED lesson above, The Unexpected Math Behind Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.”

Created by math artist/teacher Natalya St. Clair and animator Avi Ofer, the video explores how “Van Gogh captured [the] deep mystery of movement, fluid and light in his work,” and particularly managed to depict the elusive phenomenon known as turbulence. In Starry Night, the video observes, van Gogh depicted turbulence with a degree of sophistication and accuracy that rivals the way physicists and mathematicians have best explained turbulence in their own scientific papers. And, it all happened, perhaps by coincidence (?), during the turbulent last years of van Gogh’s life.

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  • Adrian says:

    During psychotic episodes sufferers often experience very strange visual disturbances, similar in some ways to that experienced by people having taken drugs like lsd. Migraine sufferers also. There’s evidence (sorry no refs!) that the underlying visual processing of the brain, normally not visible or available to the conscious mind is somehow being made visible and brought into consciousness. I think there’s a good chance he was actually painting what he was seeing.

  • martin cohen says:

    They should have shown the original painting. I find it absurd that they did not.

  • Michele Johnson says:

    Yes Martin, it is odd. I wonder if there is some sort of copyright constraint which might explain it, although, as far as i’m aware the painting is out of copyright. There may have been a copyright constraint imposed by the photographer of the image?? I’m not sure how it all works. As far as I know Wikimedia Commons has the painting on it’s site.

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