Why Is This Famous?

The Asylum Stay That Led to "Starry Night"

The work that perplexes psychologists and physicists alike

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Jul 3, 2019

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Vincent van Gogh

Paul Gauguin

In our series Why Is This Famous?, we aim to answer the unanswerable: How does a work actually enter the public consciousness? (See all installments.)

These days, Vincent van Gogh may be just as famous for his chaotic life as he is for his gorgeous color palettes and singular paint application. Many of you may know that the Post Impressionist never saw success or praise during his lifetime and only ever sold one work. For this, and the circumstances of his death, he may be the first modern painter to embody the “tragic artist” stereotype. But what’s often missing from his story is how an unknown artist’s work became one of the most iconic images in the world a century after his death.

Starry NightVincent van Gogh
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After hopping from European city to European city as a young, unsuccessful artist, Van Gogh settled in Paris in 1886 when rapid industrialization was sweeping the continent (and Paris, in particular). The buildings blooming everywhere, the smoky and loud trains, and the throngs of people visiting the brand-new Moulin Rouge and Eiffel Tower all proved too frantic for the mentally unstable painter. While living in Paris, Van Gogh proved a difficult roommate for fellow (and more successful) painter Paul Gauguin; a fight between the two seemed to have spurred Van Gogh’s mental break, which resulted in him cutting off the lower part of his own ear in 1888. After a brief stay in a mental health facility, Van Gogh moved to the peaceful South of France where he found nature to be the calming salve he needed. At this time he wrote to his younger brother, Theo, “I must also have a starry night with cypresses, or perhaps above all a field of ripe corn; there are some wonderful nights here.”

IrisesVincent van Gogh
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But this newfound stability would be short-lived. In 1889, after experiencing another unbearable mental break, Van Gogh entered himself into the Saint-Paul Asylum in Saint-Rémy, where he painted Starry Night, along with many other iconic works, including his Wheatfield and Irises series. While some works, like Corridor in the Asylum, clearly indicate the painter’s surroundings, historians believe Starry Night is, in part, made up. The scene may mimic the view out of Van Gogh’s window into the village of Saint-Rémy, but it isn’t quite exact; the mountains aren’t quite as high, and the church’s noteworthy dome is missing. The pointy, dome-less church in Starry Night, however, looks more like the churches Van Gogh grew up around in the Netherlands, one of which his father worked in. Still, scholars draw on a specific letter to Theo from the asylum as evidence that Starry Night was inspired by his view: “This morning I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise, with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big.”

From the asylum to MoMA

Most of the information we have about Van Gogh is from the almost 1,000 letters he wrote to Theo from 1872 until his death in 1890. When Theo died, just a few months after his brother’s suicide, the letters, along with many of the artist’s works, were left in the possession of Theo’s widow, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger. As Johanna began loaning and donating Van Gogh’s works to small exhibitions, the late artist began to gain appreciation in Europe.

In 1886, when Van Gogh first moved to Paris, Impressionism was all the rage. Both artists and art appreciators couldn’t get enough of the movement’s obsession with capturing impressions of fleeting light—something Van Gogh wasn’t keen to copy. In retrospect, it can seem like his fatal flaw was being too ahead of his time. Just 30 years later, decades after his death, the art world had moved on. Post-Impressionism and Expressionism, which drew from emotional and psychological impressions, were now in vogue, and suddenly Van Gogh was too.

Theo or Vincent? For years, this man (aged 13 and 32), was thought to be Vincent, but now historians believe him to be Theo. Credit: Vincent Van Gogh Foundation.

Beginning in 1914, Johanna published three volumes of Vincent and Theo’s correspondences, spurring deeper and wider interest in Van Gogh and his work, mostly from European collectors of avant-garde art. The artist’s simultaneously tragic and juicy life story (severed ears, anyone?) combined with his work’s sudden syncing with art world trends made his art quite valuable, particularly in Germany and France. When World War I ended, in 1918, economic turmoil struck Europe while the U.S. began enjoying a period of prosperity. French and German art collectors sold Van Gogh works for very cheap, mostly to American art collectors who were beginning to conceptualize New York City as the new center of the art world. The Museum of Modern Art opened in 1929, and its first exhibition featured Van Gogh prominently. One of MoMA’s founders bequeathed Starry Night to the museum in 1941, where it has been displayed with almost no breaks ever since.

Ending up on such hallowed walls is usually the end of the story. But in the nearly 80 years since Starry Night became a MoMA fixture, its aura has only increased. Each year it seems this nearly forgotten masterpiece claims more fans. To understand its allure, we, like millions of MoMA visitors, must look closer.

A foreboding omen or calming sight?

The largest, darkest object in the painting is a cypress tree. Claiming the foreground, it balances the horizontal composition of the town with the diagonal line of the mountains cutting through the canvas. Van Gogh had a particular interest in cypress trees during his stay at the hospital. He wrote to Theo that the cypresses in Saint-Rémy were “beautiful as regards lines and proportions, like an Egyptian obelisk.” He noted that they were “the dark patch in a sun-drenched landscape, but it’s one of the most interesting dark notes, the most difficult to hit off exactly that I can imagine.” Other paintings from his stay featuring cypresses include Green Wheatfield with Cypress, Wheatfield with Cypresses, and The Cypresses (all painted in 1889). Some scholars read this fascination as a grim omen; in Western art history, dating back to the Greco-Roman period, cypresses represent both death and the bridge between heaven and earth. But, of course, omens are easier to decipher in retrospect.

Wheatfield with ReaperVincent van Gogh
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Van Gogh would commit suicide in July of 1890—less than a year after he left Saint-Rémy. Is the cypress in Starry Night a literal bridge from the quiet, dark city into a glorious, otherworldly realm in the sky? Possibly, though some scholars find this explanation a bit easy. They point out that Van Gogh’s love of the cypress and the peace he felt from the night sky (he once wrote, “the sight of the stars always makes me dream”) prove that the cypresses don’t indicate some sort of downward spiral into depression. Of course, it’s unsolvable questions like these that keep interest in the work continuously kindled.

Which department is this?

This kind of inquiry into the artist’s mental state is another unavoidable reason for Starry Night’s enduring fame. It’s not just art scholars who have flocked to the painting but also historians and psychologists bent on diagnosing the Dutch painter. While some have claimed that Starry Night indicates hallucinations consistent with schizophrenia, others have pointed to the cypress as a sign of an obsession with death—indicative of mood swings or bipolar disorder. While this is all fine fodder for a debate that has no real repercussions, we shouldn’t forget the thousands of works in the canon that depict images beyond the scope of reality.

One of the only known photographs of Vincent van Gogh. Credit: Vincent van Gogh Foundation.

Not to be left out, even physicists have taken an interest in Van Gogh, and Starry Night in particular. Apparently, the painting is in accordance with “turbulent flow”—a concept in fluid dynamics that even some advanced mathematicians have trouble grasping. Some experts in the field believe that the swirling waves of multicolored light, simultaneously blended together and separated, is a perfect pictorial description of the unexplainably erratic patterns created in certain natural fluid and gas flows (think: large surfs or smoky chimneys). While other artists have used such “swirls” in paintings, Van Gogh’s swirls and eddies are remarkably close to scientists’ best graphs of turbulent flow.

Paradoxically, it seems that the more information we have about Van Gogh’s life, the less resolution there is about who he was and what constituted his genius. Each new perspective only unlocks more questions: about his mental illness and its relation to his work, about his understanding of the universe, and about where he belongs in art history. Follow any of these questions and you won’t get closer to an answer—the opposite in fact. If we understood why, exactly, Starry Night was famous, it probably wouldn’t deserve to be.

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A Stay at Saint-Rémy

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