Vincent Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night”: Why It’s a Great Painting in 15 Minutes

I had always want­ed to see Van Gogh’s “The Star­ry Night” in per­son and many years ago I got a chance when I vis­it­ed the Muse­um of Mod­ern Art in New York. How­ev­er, two dozen oth­er peo­ple, who also want­ed that chance, were there too, and my vision of Van Gogh’s mas­ter­piece was one behind a pha­lanx of cell phones all try­ing to grab a “been there, done that” pic. For­tu­nate­ly, the video above from the Great Art Explained YouTube chan­nel takes you clos­er to the paint­ing that an in-per­son view­ing could with­out set­ting off an alarm. In 15 min­utes, narrator/creator James Payne lays out the his­to­ry, the cre­ation, and the tech­nique of “Star­ry Night” in great detail.

Some of the key take­aways from the video include:

1. A re-eval­u­a­tion of asy­lums in the 19th cen­tu­ry. While cer­tain­ly many asy­lums for those with men­tal ill­ness were despair­ing places, not so the small one in Saint-Rémy, in Provence. Though there were bars on the win­dows, Van Gogh’s views were of lush coun­try­side and the small town near­by; views that would soon become the sub­ject of his paint­ings. And the doc­tors real­ized that paint­ing, and the free­dom to work on his art, was the best thing for Van Gogh’s men­tal health. Dur­ing his one-year stay at the asy­lum, he fin­ished at least 150 paint­ings. “The Star­ry Night,” paint­ed on June 18, 1889, was one of them.

But there were many mas­ter­pieces before that, includ­ing “Iris­es,” paint­ed in the asylum’s walled gar­den before lunch one day; and many of the sur­round­ing coun­try­side once doc­tors decid­ed he was safe to be let out alone.

2. The for­ma­tive effect of Impres­sion­ism and Japan­ese ukiyo‑e on his work. From Mon­et and oth­ers, Van Gogh took the atten­tion to nat­ur­al light, the vis­i­ble brush­strokes, and the pointil­list col­or­ing that would form new col­ors in the viewer’s eye. From the Japan­ese he took bold, bright col­ors and rad­i­cal com­po­si­tion.

We can pin­point the exact time and date of “Star­ry Night” and see what Van Gogh saw from his win­dow (thanks to Grif­fith Park Obser­va­to­ry). And what we learn is…the man was an artist. He col­laged the best bits of what he want­ed us to see, from con­stel­la­tion and plan­ets, to the vil­lage below (tak­en from a dif­fer­ent view­point), to the cypress tree, which he brought for­ward in the com­po­si­tion. Van Gogh was tak­ing a cue from Paul Gau­guin, who encour­aged him to use his imag­i­na­tion more, and find­ing the asy­lum led to a more active and more crit­i­cal way of think­ing about paint­ing.

3. The “unap­pre­ci­at­ed-in-his-life­time” myth. Yes, Van Gogh died too young. But no, he wasn’t an obscure artist. As Payne sends us off, he points out that Van Gogh was very much a part of the impres­sion­ist art scene, showed his paint­ings *and* sold them, and even had crit­ics write about him. So, it might be bet­ter to call him a ris­ing star, snuffed out too ear­ly. We can only won­der where he would have gone in his art, and what he would have cre­at­ed.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Great Art Explained: Watch 15 Minute Intro­duc­tions to Great Works by Warhol, Rothko, Kahlo, Picas­so & More

1,000+ Art­works by Vin­cent Van Gogh Dig­i­tized & Put Online by Dutch Muse­ums: Enter Van Gogh World­wide

Rare Vin­cent van Gogh Paint­ing Goes on Pub­lic Dis­play for the First Time: Explore the 1887 Paint­ing Online

Down­load Vin­cent van Gogh’s Col­lec­tion of 500 Japan­ese Prints, Which Inspired Him to Cre­ate “the Art of the Future”

In a Bril­liant Light: Van Gogh in Arles–A Free Doc­u­men­tary

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the Notes from the Shed pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

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