One doesn't have to know much about the history of art to be familiar with Vincent Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night.”  The painting’s crescent moon and stars pulse with the intensity of the infinite while in the foreground a lone cypress reaches into the heavens, a visual echo of the church spire tucked in the valley below.  Until recently, I didn’t realize that several Van Gogh paintings feature stars.  “Starry Night over the Rhone” positions arguably the most recognizable asterism, Ursa Major, over the quay at Arles.  The night is lit by reflections – the light of the street lamps ripples over the water as the stars blaze above.  Van Gogh painted stars above “Café Terrace at Night” and “White House at Night” as well. 

Recognizing a fellow star gazer, I dove into a selection of Vincent’s letter to his brother Theo.  Unsurprisingly, he’d been a lover, an observer, of nature from his earliest years.  But it’s not until 1888 when he moves to Arles, a small town near the Mediterranean, that stars begin to feature in his correspondence.  He takes a trip to Saintes-Maries-sur-Mer in the 2nd half of June and reports back to Theo:

One night I went for a walk by the sea along the empty shore.  It was not gay, but neither was it sad – it was – beautiful.  The deep blue sky was flecked with clouds of a blue deeper than the fundamental blue of intense cobalt, and others of a clearer blue, like the blue whiteness of the Milky Way.  In the blue depth the stars were sparkling, greenish, yellow, white, rose, brighter, flashing more like jewels, than they do at home – even in Paris:  opals you might call them, emeralds, lapis, rubies, sapphires.

In a letter written in early September, presumably while he’s in the midst of painting “Starry Night over the Rhone” and “Café Terrace at Night,” Vincent proposes this: 

To express hope by some star, the eagerness of a soul by a sunset radiance.  Certainly there is nothing in that of trompe l’oeil realism, but is it not something that actually exists?

During the same period, Vincent is also reading Whitman.  I couldn’t help but wonder if his passion for the stars was being fed by “When Lilacs Last in the Courtyard Bloom’d.”  With his poem, Whitman is also trying to “express hope by some star” – in his case, the Evening Star, Venus.

Within 4 months of completing his paintings, the infamous ear-cutting incident occurs and Vincent's stay in Arles soon after comes to a close.  Once settled in Saint-Remy, Van Gogh paints "The Starry Night" in September 1889, and “White House at Night,” one of his final works, is completed within the last month and a half of his life in June of the next year.  Dr. Donald Olson, an astronomer who connects famous historical events and artistic achievements to celestial maps, has confirmed that this star was Venus.  But in a letter written a year earlier to Theo, Vincent pretty much identifies it himself:

This morning, I saw the country from my window a long time before sunrise, with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big.  Daubigny and Rousseau have depicted just that, expressing all that it has of intimacy, all that vast peace and majesty, but adding as well a feeling so individual, so heartbreaking.

“Intimacy,” “peace,” “majesty” – in his paintings, Van Gogh is able to speak to people across the ages because he could feel the power of the night sky and could render them as he felt them.  Reading his letters, I began to understand a little about him.  A willful man determined to find his own truth, in art as well as in life, Van Gogh’s only sources of comfort were art, his growing competency and the ecstatic natural beauty he struggled to capture.  Unfortunately, these weren’t enough to keep him grounded in sanity.  For a soul as tortured as Vincent’s, there had to be a feeling of blessed peace in his suicide.  In a letter written two years earlier, Vincent consider his difficult circumstances with a line of thought he clearly finds comforting:

It certainly is a strange phenomenon that all the artists, poets, musicians, painters, are unfortunate in material things . . . That brings up again the eternal question:  is the whole of life visible to us, or isn’t it rather that this side death we see one hemisphere only?
Painters – to take them only – dead and buried, speak to the next generation or to several succeeding generations through their work.
Is that all, or is there more besides?  In a painter’s life death is not perhaps the hardest thing there is.
For my own part, I declare I know nothing whatever about it, but to look at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots of a map representing towns and villages.  Why, I ask myself, should the shining dots of the sky not be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France?  If we take the train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star.  One thing undoubtedly true in this reasoning is this, that while we are alive we cannot get to a star, any more than when we are dead we can take the train.
So it seems to me possible that cholera, gravel, phthisis and cancer are the celestial means of locomotion, just as steamboats, omnibuses and railways are the terrestrial means.  To die quietly of old age would be to go there on foot.

In the paintings he left behind, the stars Vincent painted speak to us of eternity, with all the heights of joy and depths of sadness.  Perhaps he is watching us, at peace finally, having reached the safety of his own star.


Van Gogh's The Starry Night is part of the Google Art Project. View a beautiful high resolution copy of the image here.
The interface allows zooming to an extreme close up in order to examine individual brush strokes and texture as in the detail shown above. Very cool.