“Either this man will eventually go mad, or he will overtake us all” – Camille Pissarro
In his description of Van Gogh, Pissarro missed the crux of the matter – he was both a madman, and an artist ahead of his time. It is only through an appreciation of both of these dimensions that one can fully appreciate Van Gogh’s genius.
In the month of May 1889, Vincent Van Gogh voluntarily left the city of Paris to take up residence in the mental asylum of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. During his one-year stay, Van Gogh painted ‘The Starry Night,’ a piece of such profound spirituality that it is difficult to deny the power of its creator. In the piece, Van Gogh goes against the terms and aspirations of painting set by his contemporaries. In doing so, he produces a peculiar vision of the world; rather than depicting the city lights, he depicts the lights of the stars. The result is a magnificent reflection on the beauty of the natural world, and the countless wonders it beholds.
So, let us look at the composition of the painting to see how Van Gogh creates this sense of awe. We can see a church spire dominating a small village, and a cypress tree in the forefront of the painting. This gives the painting a great sense of depth. We can also see the centre point of the two ‘waves’ in the sky is perfectly aligned with the drop point between the hills. The village is focused around the church – a sign of good Christian virtues. We should also note the way each house is painted – they are bordered in black just like a stained glass window, giving them a far stronger structure. Likewise, the trees are thick and abundant. On the other hand, the sky is vibrant, fluid almost, and the stars disperse their light in concentrated waves. The painting is therefore a very intended demonstration of forces in opposition; the solidity of the earth against the sublime intensity of the fluid sky. What links these worlds is a cypress tree, thick and black like asphalt but also bright like a flame. The apparent folly of ‘The Starry Night’ is therefore intended.
Yet, the beauty we see is perversely undermined when one realizes that this scenery is entirely fictional. Van Gogh could only see the asylum’s courtyard outside his window, and the village of Saint-Rémy, though somewhat similar, did not look like the one portrayed here. In the painting therefore, one is able to witness Van Gogh harnessing his unstable mind to create a spectacular, but false image.
In this way, ‘The Starry Night’ is a reflection of Van Gogh’s desire to escape the world of modernity in which he lives. Therefore, the cyprus tree here (most common in cemeteries) can be seen here as a bridge between the world Van Gogh lives in, and the sky he wishes he could live in. This is a bridge Van Gogh will take only a year after completing his masterpiece, by shooting himself in the chest.