While the aphorism that genius is never recognised in its own time predates Van Gogh by centuries, there are few creative geniuses who exemplfy it as much as he does. Vincent Van Gogh was a Dutch painter with a style labelled as post-Impressionist. This is misleading: while Van Gogh’s art shows clear influences of the Impressionists, his style was utterly unique, and in various works anticipated both Cubism and Surrealism.
Van Gogh suffered from mental health problems, notably severe anxiety. The widespread rejection of his art, which was derided as childish for its rough style and bold colours, did nothing to relieve his issues. Although no gun was ever found, it is widely accepted that Van Gogh took his own life at the age of 37, finally losing the war with his personal demons.
Van Gogh’s fame took off after his death, bringing him too late the recognition he had so long desired. Alongside only Pablo Picasso, his works are the most expensive in the world, and his influence on the Expressionist school of painting is incalculable: it literally would not exist without his pioneering works.
It is one of the most famous paintings in the entire Western canon, and yet, no one seems to be exactly sure just when “The Starry Night” was painted. While it is generally agreed that it was painted in June of 1889, no one is sure of the exact days – or more likely, nights – that he worked on it.
In May of that year, Van Gogh had committed himself to the hospital at Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, which was housed in a former monastery in Saint-Rémy, less than 20 miles (32 km) from Arles where he had lived for the previous year and painted many of his most well-known works. He painted only a few paintings during his year in the hospital, despite having been given two bedrooms (the second for use as a studio). Of these, “The Starry Night” is the most well-known – indeed, it may be the most well-known of all Van Gogh’s paintings.
The painting itself depicts the night sky as a thing alive with energies and lights. It is a busy image, and yet one that is both playful and restful. The painting depicts the view from the window of Van Gogh’s room, which faced south over the village of Saint-Rémy, although certain liberties have been taken with the view – the presence of the constellation Ursa Major (which should be to the north of the asylum) and of a cypress tree – are both additions not present in the actual view.
Vincent — Don McLean
Fans of Doctor Who should note that this painting was completed after Van Gogh’s encounter with the Doctor and Amy Pond.