Starry Night Visual Analysis

Category: Art
Date added
2021/05/09
Pages:  7
Words:  2245
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For this paper I will analyze Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night, using the six perspectives we learned in class. I will start with my personal perspective before I begin to delve deeper into the historical, technical, ethical, and cultural perspectives. Once I’ve more thoroughly examined the image from these perspectives, I will use what I have learned to provide a critical perspective on the piece. I will conclude with some insights about what I’ve learned from this experience. Personal Perspective When I saw this image amongst the others, it triggered some memory that I couldn’t quite place. I know the image is famous, but I recall learning a bit about van Gogh at some point in my past, though I can’t say exactly when. This image has always been one of my favorites of van Gogh’s work, but I’ve never taken the time to seriously analyze the painting. I always liked the swirly brush strokes across the night sky. Blues and greens are my favorite colors, and I like the way they are used in the photo, but I also found the contrast of the yellow against the blue to be a bit jarring. I find it curious that the painting appears to be both simple and complex at the same time. 

The shapes of the buildings, trees, and hills seem to be simple enough that anyone could draw them, but even an untrained eye can see that the use of color and brush strokes make the composition much more technical than a first glance would tell. I also find it amusing that the image has been appropriated to produce a multitude of memes and merchandise, including several items featuring one of my favorite pop icons, Dr. Who. Historical Perspective There were many factors that played a part in how van Gogh’s Starry Night came to be. In an article that discusses the life and influences of Vincent van Gogh, Thackara (2018) argued that the time van Gogh spent as an art dealer at Goupil & Co. both helped to “shape his aesthetic sensibility as an artist” and also influenced “the way he imagined his work might play in the market” (Thackara, 2018). 

She further explained that through his experience at the art dealership van Gogh was exposed to Post-Impressionist artists such as Paul Gaugin – with whom van Gogh would form a close relationship – as well as traditional artists, like Ernest Meissonier, which would be an inspiration to his future work (Thackara, 2018). Thackara (2018) suggested that van Gogh’s brother Theo, who also worked at Goupil & Co., urged him to pursue his career as an artist, and Theo’s connections to the industry, as well as his personal patronage, would further impact van Gogh’s body of work (Thackara, 2018). Knowledge of van Gogh’s history is not only derived from the study of his art. Shiff (1988) contended that van Gogh is one of the best-known artists of his time chiefly due to the curation of letters he wrote to his family and friends, “which amount to a diary and self-analysis” (Shiff, 1988, p.29). Esner (2010) went beyond this to suggest of van Gogh that “proof of his profoundly intellectual stance towards art-making lies in the letters themselves, but can only be fully understood in relation to the paintings” (Esner, 2010). 

Therefore, through close study of van Gogh’s work as well as his correspondence, Pickvance (1986) surmised that though Starry Night was created after van Gogh had voluntarily committed himself to an asylum in Saint-Remy in May 1889, having suffered from a particular form of epilepsy, “his pictures were painted during interludes of intellectual clarity” (Pickvance, 1986, p. 7). Technical Perspective Starry Night is currently on exhibit at The Museum of Modern Art, Floor 5, Collection Galleries; the medium is oil on canvas; its dimensions are 29 x 36 1/4′ (73.7 x 92.1 cm) (Museum of Metropolitan Art [MoMA], n.d.). In the piece, van Gogh used an impasto technique which MoMA defined as “an Italian word for ‘mixture,’ used to describe a painting technique wherein paint is thickly laid on a surface, so that brushstrokes or palette knife marks are visible” (MoMA, n.d). Throughout the piece, van Gogh’s linework is vaguely reminiscent of the pointillist style of Seurat, whose piece Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte, Jirat-Wasiuty?ski (1993) suggests, van Gogh preferred over the abstract work of his contemporaries and friends Bernard and Gauguin (Jirat-Wasiuty?ski, 1993, p. 662). 

The majority of the lines are curved, which according to Lester may “convey a mood of playfulness, suppleness and movement” (Lester, 2018). The shapes created by these lines include both a circle, and a semi-circle to depict the moon, which both Boime and Whitney argued would have been a gibbous moon at the time of the painting, though van Gogh’s brush strokes show that he changed it from a gibbous to a crescent (Boime, 1984; Whitney 1986). Starry Night also exhibits the use of several depth cues which were discussed in class lectures and text. The size if the cypress tree in comparison to buildings of the town, along with its interposition on top of the rest of the elements in the scene, give the impression that it is closer to the viewer. Van Gogh also uses color to express depth by choosing a darker blue to emulate shadows on the hills in the background. He also makes use of textural gradients formed by the base color and highlights to give depth, as more detail can be seen close up than what is meant to appear farther away. Another visual cue that is present in this piece is the element of movement. There is a sense of graphic movement as the eye is drawn from the tree in the foreground by the swirling lines of the wind, up to the moon, then back down the snowy hills to the town itself. 

There is also implied movement, as an odd phenomenon occurs if one stares softly at the painting – as one’s vision goes out of focus, the lines in the sky can appear to shift slightly. The theory of Gestalt applies to the scene as well, in respect to at least two of the laws: similarity and proximity. Regarding similarity, the curved lines that are prevalent throughout the midground of the painting, between the buildings and the hills, are grouped by the brain and understood to be trees. Proximity also makes groups of the trees, as well as other objects in the painting. For instance, the proximity between the shapes of the buildings gives the impression that they are meant to represent a town. The painting also contains several types of semiotics that give meaning beyond the simple lines that are drawn. The houses, church, and tree in the foreground, which clearly resemble the objects they represent, would be examples of iconic signs. While indexical signs can be found in the swirling lines meant to represent the motions of the heavens, as well as the circular globes of light which are meant to represent stars. Symbols of religion and nature compete for prominence. And the combination of these and other signs make up a metonymic code, that allows the observer without knowledge of the painting’s title to make the assumption that this is a depiction of a nighttime view of a small village. 

Ethical Perspective The decisions van Gogh made in creating his piece can also be explored from an ethical perspective. As Jirat-Wasiuty?ski (1993) explains, during the time that van Gogh stayed at the asylum of St.-Paul-de-Mausole outside St.-Remy, the images he created, including Starry Night, were subject to “tensions between description and expression, between the desire to portray the physical world as he understood it and to evoke a personal spiritual symbolism” (Jirat-Wasiuty?ski, 1993, p. 647). The article goes on to suggest that the image itself is a composition of observations van Gogh made of the surrounding landscape from his view through the window of his room at the asylum, which he assembled to produce a symbolic image of his own imagination (p. 658). Both Boime and Whitney compared star charts and schematics to the painting of Starry Night, along with van Gogh’s letters and his other drawings, to confirm the elements he depicted did indeed exist during the time of van Gogh’s stay at the asylum in St-Remy, though both acknowledge that the painting itself was indeed an amalgamation of observations he must have made, not just from the view of his window, but also while outside of the confines of his room (Boime, 1984; Whitney 1986). 

In a sense, his compromise between an accurate depiction and one imagined exhibited in the creation of Starry Night can be compared to the ethical perspective known as the golden mean. According to Lester (2018), “the golden mean philosophy refers to finding a middle ground or compromise between two extreme points of view or actions” (Lester, 2018, p. 148). Though the points of view may not necessarily be considered extreme, by choosing to find a balance between his artistry and accuracy, van Gogh was able to incorporate more into the painting than the scenery itself, yet not stray too far from the reality he was experiencing. Cultural Perspective Though Starry Night may appear to be just another landscape, there are those who have proposed that there are also several culturally symbolic elements placed within the image. Art historian Albert Boime (1984) suggested that like many nineteenth-century people, van Gogh had an interest in astrology (Boime, 1984, p. 89). He believed this led van Gogh to accurately depict the constellation of Aries, the sign under which he was born, as it would have appeared in the night sky at the time of the image’s creation. Boime (1984) also believed that what he termed the “serpentine band” in the center of the of the painting may be representative of a spiral galaxy or the trail of a comet – which was a phenomenon of particular interest in the 1880s (Boime, 1984, p. 89). 

Whitney (1986) suggested that it is more likely that it was a representation of a spiral galaxy, inferring that van Gogh would not have used the other icon “in view of the sinister reputation enjoyed by comets through the ages” (Whitney, 1986, p. 358). Though the church of Saint-Martin was in reality outside of the scope of the view from van Gogh’s window, Boime (1984) believed that it was an ideological decision to shift the church to the center of the image, which “demonstrates the need to comment upon his human construct within the natural context” (Boime, 1984, p. 89). Pickvance (1986) suggested that “the elongated church spire seems more Dutch than Provençal,” having compared it to several that van Gogh had previously drawn or painted while in Nuenen, he asserted that its insertion into this Southern landscape was based on what van Gogh refers to in his correspondence as his “memories of the North” (Pickvance, 1986, p. 103). Regarding other cultural influences, Boime (1984) suggested that van Gogh’s had an affinity for literary works by authors such as Hans Christian Anderson, Carlyle, Longfellow, and Whitman which he referenced in his work as “astronomical metaphors for religious experience” (Boime, 1984, p. 90). 

In particular, Boime (1984) equated the prominence of the cypress tree in the foreground in opposition to the comparatively small church steeple with passages from Dutch author Multatuli’s work Max Havelaar regarding man’s use of towers and steeples, which fall short of reaching the heaven they were meant to lead their faithful toward (Boime, 1984, p. 89). An article accompanying the image of Starry Night on MoMA’s website further described the symbology of the cypress as “a bridge between life, as represented by the earth, and death, as represented by the sky, commonly associated with heaven” as well as being considered “the trees of the graveyard and mourning” (MoMA, n.d.). Critical Perspective After delving deep into the scholarly works that have sought to understand the life of Vincent van Gogh, and in particular Starry Night, I am able to see his work in a new light. Though van Gogh ultimately sought to provide a sense of realism in his work, his circumstances influenced his ability to do so. 

Therefore, his work is a combination of the real and the imagined. What at first seemed to be just simple brush strokes proved to be meticulous flowing linework, which provide a sense of fluidity and also evoke an air of mystique surrounding what may have really been going through the artist’s mind at the moment. Van Gogh’s creative composite of both what was before his eyes and in his mind’s eye provided the world with just a glimpse of his genius. Through his choice of pigments, his expressive brush strokes, and composition decisions, van Gogh created a sum that is truly greater than its parts. Conclusion This assignment has taught me that there is so much more to viewing an image than a cursory glance can tell. By exploring the six perspectives, I was able to dive deeper into the work than I might have ever thought to do. This has made the image even more meaningful and poignant. Through my research, I now know more of van Gogh’s life than appropriate to include in this paper, but that only serves to further enrich my knowledge of his artistry. I have learned to appreciate more than the aesthetic beauty of the Starry Night, and better understand its purpose and influences, using skills I can apply to other work in the future.

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Starry Night Visual Analysis. (2021, May 09). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/starry-night-visual-analysis/

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