Starry Starry Night: Van Gogh at his unfortunate best!

Starry Starry Night, Van Gogh
Van Gogh: Self Portrait

“Starry, starry night
Flaming flowers that brightly blaze
Swirling clouds in violet haze
Reflect in Vincent’s eyes of china blue
Colors changing hue
Morning fields of amber grain
Weathered faces lined in pain
Are soothed beneath the artist’s loving hand

“Now I understand
What you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free
They would not listen, they did not know how
Perhaps they’ll listen now

“For they could not love you
But still your love was true
And when no hope was left in sight
On that starry, starry night
You took your life, as lovers often do
But I could have told you, Vincent
This world was never meant for one
As beautiful as you” Songwriter: Don McLean

During my under-graduate studies this was a favourite song that played regularly in the hostel. Don McLean was famous for this song ‘VIncent’ and his all time hit ‘American Pie’. I was blissfully unaware that this was about Vincent Van Gogh. Recently in London We saw the film ‘Loving Vincent’ where this song plays at the end. The movie is about the last few years that he spent at Auvers-sur-Oise where he finally took his life. The song by Don McLean beautifully depicts the conflict and pain Van Gogh may have undergone in those last days. 

As luck would have it, Tate Britain museum was hosting an exhibition of the Van Gogh’s paintings and of course we went. I have seen Van Gogh paintings before in Amsterdam, but this time they really made sense to me. This first painting ‘Starry Starry Night’ beautifully brings the song to life. The beauty of Van Gogh work is the vibrant colours in his later paintings. The technique was known as ‘impasto’ which involved laying down a thick layer of paint on a segment of the canvas. It made the brush strokes more visible and results in a three dimensional effect in his painting. 

Scenes of the landscape painted at Auvers 
Farms near Auvers where Van Gogh spent the last years of his life
Wheatfields, Van Gogh

Van Gogh was very fond of bright colours like chrome yellow, chrome orange, Prussian blue and emerald.
These colours are very visible in his paintings. Along with his style of paintings, these bright colours made them strikingly beautiful. Wheatfields and Willows at sunset are examples of this choice of the colour yellow.

Willows at Sunset

The paintings Olive Trees and Starry Starry Night (my favourite) were more in shades of blue and purple. 

Van Gogh spent periods of his life in hospitals and asylums and suffered from mental illness. The Olive Trees was painted while he was at Saint-Paul Hospital, Saint Remy. “The steep slope and swirling foliage appear to capture the energy of the local ‘mistral’winds”. 

Olive Trees, made while staying at Saint-Paul Hospital
Saint Paul Hospital at Saint-Remy, 1889

“Van Gogh painted this view of the Saint Paul Hospital garden after he was confined by illness for several weeks. The contrasting red earth and green leaves and the trees swirling high above the hospital buildings express the energy he found in nature”.

Path in the garden of the asylum, Saint-Remy, 1889. This is a classic. Van Gogh loved the garden, but if you look carefully you see a bench in blue with a lone small figure of a patient seated away from the path. It is said this was a hint at his sense of being separated from the outside world. You would almost miss it, if you did not bother to read the documentation that goes along side the paintings at Tate. 
Sunflowers, 1888 is one of his famous paintings, meant to decorate his house in Arles in the South of France. His brother Theo, who was an art dealer, died within six months of Van Gogh’s death. His sister-in-law Johann Van Gogh inherited most of his paintings and spent her life working hard to promote his reputation as an artist. She sold Sunflowers to the National Gallery, Millibank in 1924, which later became the Tate Museum. 

Van Gogh hardly received any acclaim during his life time. He was seen as an eccentric person and he was dependent on finances from his brother to even purchase canvas and paints. Later his form of art was recognized and many exhibitions portrayed his work even at the Tate Museum.


One thought on “Starry Starry Night: Van Gogh at his unfortunate best!

  1. There is a deep lesson in the fact that Van Gogh was able to use his personal pain to create beautiful and lasting works of Art which others could enjoy. One of the most poignant legacies of Van Gogh is that a better understanding of the context of his work helped establish Art Therapy as a field of practice for persons dealing with mental and emotional stress.


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