03 January 2014

Art for Christmas (10): ‘Starry Night’
by Vincent van Gogh

‘Starry Night’ by Vincent van Gogh

Patrick Comerford

A well-known Dutch brand of beer has been advertising itself throughout this Christmas holiday season with the slogan “Starry, Starry Night.”

It is sad when beer becomes confused with Christmas cheer, when songs from the 1970s become confused with the work of artists, and when Dutch breweries try to convince us they are making as much a contribution to our society as Dutch artists.

Last year [2013], the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam celebrated its 40th year and reopened its doors to the public on 1 May 2013. For several years, the Van Gogh Museum daily played Don McLean’s Vincent (the real title for Starry Starry Night). It was written not as a Christmas song but as a tribute to Vincent van Gogh and was the No 1 record in Britain in 1972. The Van Gogh museum holds a copy of the sheet music alongside a set of Van Gogh’s paint brushes and the hat he wore while painting Starry Night.

This morning [3 January 2014], continuing my series on works of Art for Christmas to meditate on, I have chosen Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night, and two related paintings by the same artist, Starry Night Over the Rhône and Café Terrace at Night.

Vincent Willem van Gogh (1853-1890) was a Dutch-born post-Impressionist painter whose work, with its rough beauty, emotional honesty and bold colour, has been influential throughout the last century.

He was born on 30 March 1853, in Groot-Zundert, in the southern Netherlands, the oldest child of the Revd Theodorus van Gogh, a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church, and Anna Cornelia Carbentus.

At an early stage, he felt a call to ordained ministry, and he went to Amsterdam to study theology in 1877. His uncle, Johannes Paulus Stricker (1816-1886), was a theologian and author of Jezus van Nazareth volgens de Historie Geschetst (Jesus of Nazareth, Drawn according to History), the first historical approach to the biography life of Jesus Christ in the Netherlands, published in 1868. When Van Gogh failed the exam, and then failed a three-month course at a Protestant missionary school near Brussels.

In 1879, he began working as a missionary in Petit Wasmes, a coal-mining village in Belgium. But in 1880, he decided to become a full-time artist. He aspired to become an artist in God’s service, in order “to try to understand the real significance of what the great artists, the serious masters, tell us in their masterpieces, that leads to God; one man wrote or told it in a book; another in a picture.”

Starry Night (De sterrennacht) was painted by Van Gogh in June 1889 while he was in an asylum. It measures 73.7 cm × 92.1 cm and has been in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City since 1941.

The painting shows the night view through the window of the artist’s room in the sanatorium at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, in southern France, although it was painted from memory during the day from memory. This painting is one of Van Gogh’s best-known works and marks a decisive turn towards greater imaginative freedom in his art.

In December 1888, Van Gogh suffered a breakdown that ended with him being taken to hospital in Arles. In May 1889, he decided to enter the asylum at Saint-Rémy, where he stayed for the next year. His time there was very productive, although interrupted by incapacitating nervous attacks. Inspired by the landscape surrounding the asylum, he painted Starry Night in June 1889.

In the centre of the painting we see the village of Saint-Rémy under a swirling sky, seen from the asylum looking north. The Alpilles are to the far right, but the hills in between seem to be those to the south of the asylum, and the cypress tree to the left was added to the scene. During his time in Arles, Van Gogh had already moved the constellation Ursa Major from the north to the south in his painting Starry Night Over the Rhône.

‘Starry Night Over the Rhône’ by Vincent van Gogh

In Starry Night Over the Rhône, painted in Arles in September 1888, Van Gogh depicts the River Rhône at night. This oil on canvas painting measures 72.5 cm × 92 cm and is in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

Working by night under a gas lamp, Van Gogh painted this work directly from nature. “It does me good to do what’s difficult,” he wrote at the time. “That doesn’t stop me having a tremendous need for, shall I say the word – for religion – so I go outside at night to paint the stars.”

‘The Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum’ by Vincent van Gogh

The first painting in which Van Gogh used a starry background is Café Terrace at Night, also known as The Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum. This is a coloured oil painting on an industrially primed canvas, measuring 80.7 cm x 65.3 cm. The painting is on view in the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo in the Netherlands.

This work was painted in Arles in mid-September 1888. The painting is not signed, but described and mentioned by the artist in his letters on many occasions. When it was first exhibited in 1892, the painting was entitled Coffeehouse, in the evening (Café, le soir).

Visitors to Arles can still stand at the north-east corner of the Place du Forum, where Van Gogh set up his easel. He looked south towards the artificially-lit terrace of the popular coffee house, as well as into the enforced darkness of the rue du Palais leading up to a building to the that is not seen in the painting. Beyond this building is the tower of a former church, now the Musée Lapidaire. To the right, Van Gogh also indicates a lighted shop and some branches of the trees surrounding the square, but he omits the remains of Roman monuments beside the little shop.

Van Gogh also painted a star-lit background in his Portrait of Eugène Boch.

On 27 July 1890, Van Gogh is believed to have shot himself in the chest with a revolver. However, no gun was ever found, there were no witnesses and the place when he shot himself is unclear. He died two days later on 29 July 1890 at the age of 37, and was buried in the municipal cemetery in Auvers-sur-Oise.

In the first two choruses of Vincent (the proper title for Starry, Starry Night), Don McLean pays tribute to Van Gogh by reflecting on his lack of recognition:

They would not listen
they did not know how
perhaps they’ll listen now.

In the final chorus, McLean sings:

They would not listen
They’re not listening still
perhaps they never will.

Van Gogh was not recognised as an artist until after his death. Although the lyrics suggest “This world was never meant for someone as beautiful as you,” they recognise that Van Gogh was trying to “set [people] free” with the message in his work.

And I find Van Gogh’s starry nights, in his various paintings, are a joyful way of preparing for the Gospel reading (John 1: 1-18) next Sunday [5 January 2014]: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1: 5).

Tomorrow: http://www.patrickcomerford.com/2014/01/art-for-christmas-11-salisbury.html, by John Constable.

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