In many ways this painting should have been my first Monday Muse, because it is by far higher on my list of favorite paintings than last week’s painting.
The only reason I listed Monet’s painting first was primarily because of my own struggle painting clouds. I took comfort in the fact that Monet’s clouds were not strikingly realistic either, and yet his painting was still wonderful and breathtaking. In other words, Monet’s painting inspired me because I saw what I would perceive as a weakness in my own work in his, and saw that despite that “weakness” his painting was still rightly considered great art.
Here, in Van Gogh’s work however, I am not seeing some weakness that encourages me that my own weakness is acceptable, rather I am seeing a mastery to aspire to.
In this, and many other of his paintings, Van Gogh, shows a style that none before him had undertaken. His brushstrokes, laid side by side, are somewhat reminiscent of the work of the Impressionists like Monet, Manet, and Renoir, but they are thicker, longer, bolder strokes, and he uses them without the strict adherence to realistic portrayal of the properties of light that the Impressionists emphasized.
His thicker, bolder brushstrokes almost mimic the work of Mosaic artists of ancient Rome and Greece, yet without the adherence to the themes of classicism those artists followed, and without the restraints imposed by the shapes of the stones.
His work somewhat resembles pointillism, such as that done by Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, however, yet again Van Gogh’s strokes are bolder, thicker, and his paintings seem to have more depth than the works of the pointillists.
Van Gogh was undoubtedly influenced all these artists, and many others as well, and yet unlike any of them, he introduced the idea of expressionism in his art. He didn’t just depict what he saw, but what he felt, and thought.
Van Gogh predated the expressionists, and his art doesn’t quite fit neatly into that definition either, but rather his art stands, almost as a bridge between impressionism and expressionism, influenced by, but not adhering to the first, and being a harbinger foretelling the development of the second. Art Historians have labeled him a post impressionist, which I suppose fits, since his work does seem to be a bridge between impressionism and more modern art forms such as abstract expressionism.
In this particular painting (Starry Night), Van Gogh is looking out the window of his room at a mental asylum, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, where Vincent had voluntarily admitted himself after cutting off a small piece of his own ear (contrary to popular myth, he did not cut off his entire ear, but rather a very small piece of the ear lobe, probably doing less harm to himself than many do through popular forms of body-art today). At any rate, he had admitted himself to the asylum, knowing that his depression was getting the better of him.
While at the asylum Vincent painted a great many paintings, the Starry Night being among the most famous. He painted it based on the view out of his window, along with no fewer than twenty other drawings, paintings, and studies, all variations on that view. Some of those works showed the scene in the day, some were pencil sketches almost identical to Starry Night.
Interestingly, Van Gogh regarded this, perhaps his most famous painting, as a failure. He referred to it in a letter to Emile Bernard this way, “When Gauguin was in Arles, I once or twice allowed myself to be led astray into abstraction, as you know. . . . But that was delusion, dear friend, and one soon comes up against a brick wall. . . . And yet, once again I allowed myself to be led astray into reaching for stars that are too big—another failure—and I have had my fill of that.”
It seems that later, he came around to appreciating abstracted style a little more though, because he later wrote about it (in reference to the Starry Night) to his brother Theo, “Despite what you say in your previous letter, that the search for style often harms other qualities, the fact is that I feel myself greatly driven to seek style, if you like, but I mean by that a more manly and more deliberate drawing. If that will make me more like Bernard or Gauguin, I can’t do anything about it. But am inclined to believe that in the long run you’d get used to it.” Then at other times he again expressed dissatisfaction with the painting, so it seems he was somewhat ambivalent in his feelings about it.
Regardless of whether he loved this painting, or continued to think of as a failure, the fact remains that this stylized sky is one of his greatest works. Perhaps, his struggle to accept this painting isn’t so hard to understand though. Perhaps, as he looked at the beauty of God’s creation, as he looked on the vastness and grandeur of the universe, and tried to depict it with mere paint and canvas, he simply felt discouraged by the impossibility of the task.
I think that while his depiction no doubt falls short in comparison to the real majesty of the heavens, his swirling brushstrokes at least give a nod to their glory, and that is the best that any artist can ever hope to do.