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In this lesson, we’ll be looking at Vincent van Gogh’s famous painting ”The Starry Night.” Give it a good look and consider its many different facets and interpretations, learn some facts about its creation along the way, and then test your knowledge with a quiz.

Description of the Painting

Painted by Vincent van Gogh just months before his tragic suicide, The Starry Night is perhaps his greatest masterpiece. In the work, van Gogh portrays a nameless European village amidst a dark wilderness, complete with dampened lights. Some buildings manage to emit just enough light to be noticed, but others, including, notably, the church, are dark and unwelcoming.

However, the real action is what is going on above the town, where the moon and stars light up the sky. Light moves across the sky in great sweeps and strokes, defeating the dark sky wherever it is encountered.However, the stars are not enough to light up the whole sky, and between the viewer, the town, and the stars, there are vast fields of dark blue, a constant reminder of the depression and fear felt throughout the artist’s life. Despite the best efforts of the stars above and the town below, the darkness still is not completely overcome.

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Analysis of the Painting

While van Gogh provided, via extensive letters to his brother, commentary on many of his works, he wrote shockingly little about The Starry Night. However, we do know that The Starry Night was not Vincent van Gogh’s first attempt at painting the night sky, and by comparing the work to the earlier painting Starry Night Over the Rhone, one is able to make several inferences about how van Gogh felt by this point of his life.

Starry Night Over the Rhone and The Starry Night
Both starry night paintings by van Gogh

Foremost, the humanity represented by Starry Night Over the Rhone is much brighter, as evidenced not only by the brightness of the windows, but the depths at which they are reflected on the river.

Furthermore, the darkness of the sky is brighter than in The Starry Night, which, in the latter painting, is a symbol for depression. In the distance, the lighter blue is seen by some critics as the first signs of morning. It is important to note that here the optimism comes from the sky, not from the town.

However, the greatest comparison between the two works can be made in terms of the stars. Van Gogh felt that stars were the destination of the soul after death, and in Starry Night Over the Rhone, they are bright, but not the alluring focus that they are in The Starry Night. The earlier focal point of the long-religious artist’s life, the church, is shown as dark and uninviting, showing the depths of torture that van Gogh felt upon his very soul. Still, van Gogh felt that his work was a particular failure because he had made the stars so large and alluring.Despite the fact that van Gogh felt the work a failure, it’s pretty much beyond a doubt that it’s the most enduring of his works, and has earned a spot in the canon of Western art.

Indeed, if nothing else, the seductive brushstrokes have caused the work to appear in popular culture in places from movie posters to cake decorations.

Some Quick Facts About the Painting

  • Painted by van Gogh in June of 1889
  • Part of the permanent collection in New York City’s Museum of Modern Art
  • Painted by van Gogh during his stay at Saint-Paul-de-Mausole
  • Painted with oil paint
  • One of over 2,100 artworks van Gogh created during his lifetime

Lesson Summary

The Starry Night has captivated viewers since its first display, even if its tortured artist, Vincent van Gogh, thought the painting was a failure. In painting, van Gogh found a way to say what he could never hope to say in words, expressing his extreme isolation in a society whose windows were darkened to him. Today, the work remains a masterpiece.

Learning Outcomes

Learners should be able to do the following after completing this lesson:

  • Describe The Starry Night by van Gogh
  • Discuss the imagery and meaning behind the painting
  • State some facts about the painting

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