Art Sunday #1: The history behind Starry Night – art beyond misunderstanding

By now we are all too familiar with Van Gogh’s art, ever hypnotic and fascinating. One can easily get lost in the flow of his brushstrokes and feel their heartbeat race to the rhythm of his vibrant palette. The artist is believed to have been very much a product of his time – a time notorious for the general anxiety in the face of industrialization. But later studies reveal a much more complex take on the matter, which paints Van Gogh as more than a tragic anti-hero of 19th century cultural schizoidism.

So what is the story behind one of history’s most notorious paintings? And could it have been linked to the artist’s mental affliction?

From the serene alpine landscapes of French countryside, to a very controversial take on the hereditary potential of mental disorders – this story’s got it all!

Keep reading to find out more!

“Unfortunately, we are subject to the circumstances and maladies of our time, whether we like it or not”

Van Gogh’s mania has been much debated, as his case of chronic mental illness was documented and emphasized for years to come after his death. The famous ear, or, may I say, lack thereof. The turbulent use of color. The rumors that he used to ingest paint, which allegedly aggravated (or even triggered, as some say) his state. The time spent in a psychiatric asylum… All these boldly contoured the psychological profile of one of the most controversial artists to ever gift our cultural thesaurus.

Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, V. Van Gogh, oil on canvas (1889)

It is, by now, noticeable how his unstable mental state was fetishized for the sake of the sensational, how we like to think of a terribly misunderstood, beautifully pained demiurge-like figure. It was obvious by how his artwork gained notoriety only after his suicide — all the way to nowadays, when sad, Tumblr-esque, collages of his paintings adorn many feeds as to confer a “cool” persona to the user. Like many other things, his art has become a consumer good, promising a change of image to its beholder. I’m saying this in a neutral tone, I neither condone, nor praise. It’s just a fact of our current society.

Back in his day, before modern science gave a name to his condition (manic depression), his reality was much crueler than the scandalously cool façade we entertain.

In Van Gogh’s time, medics had been trying to identify what seemed like a modern mental affliction for at least 50 years. They elusively named it “epilepsy”, as it mimicked the exact symptoms of the disorder. Their frustration in defining it gave us patented gems such as “latent epilepsy”, “larval epilepsy, or “masked epilepsy”. It was more commonly referred to as the “intellectual disease”, because it seemed to target people with above average mental capacities.

In Arles, dr. Ray hinted at the artist suffering from this wise man’s illness. With drastic changes in moods, predisposition to irritation or anger, the tendency to enter trance-like work sprees, unpredictable drastic actions, easy excitability, horrendous breakdowns that left the afflicted in an almost hangover state of mental deficiency – all these rang a bell to Van Gogh. Once he reached a state of acceptance, the artist seemed driven to escape his demons. This switch of mindset directly correlated to the change in scenery, as he was enrolled in the Saint-Paul-De-Mausole Asylum. There, dr. Peyron immediately diagnosed him with this strange epilepsy, most likely having heard of Rey’s observations. The diagnose became certain as Van Gogh admitted to having many of his family members suffering from mental illnesses as well.

At Eternity’s Gate, V. Van Gogh, oil on canvas (1890)

Doctors at the time might have debated furiously over such topics, but one thing they agreed on – mental afflictions were almost always hereditary.

Peyron famously noted: “What happened to this patient would be only the continuation of what has happened to several members of his family”

Interestingly, this statement had sparked the “eureka” of the century before, in realizing that heredity was the key to understanding human behavior. Two years before Darwin’s Origin of Species, in 1857, it was theorized by Benedict Morel that all mental disorders were a result of gradual genetic deterioration. This crystallized the millennial pessimism, an obsession with “types” that resulted in the atrocities of the 20th century: extermination camps, sterilization, forced fertilization – all in the name of harvesting “pure” humans.

However, this, for Vincent, proved to be liberating, as he came to terms with the fact that his disorder wasn’t his fault. Once the veil of guilt was lifted, his full creative potential was unhinged.

“I have never been so peaceful as here”

I was strolling through the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, almost a year ago. The artworks were displayed chronologically and I vividly remember a big chunk of the exhibition being comprised of his “asylum era” artworks. Some of his most famous paintings belong to this phase – as we’ll see, Starry Night as well. I overheard a visitor casually observing something along the lines of: “No wonder there’re so many paintings, I bet he was compulsively creating them in one of his manic states!”

I was inclined to agree, but the eerie calmness that dominated every scenery kept me from it.

Indeed, the asylum at Saint-Paul-De-Mausole was an alpine paradise: secluded, quiet, serene. What attracted Van Gogh in the brochure was the emphasis on a more “pagan” treatment: time alone in nature, the simple joy of fresh food, and a lax routine which let the patient be (under supervision).

Contrary to popular belief, it was here where Van Gogh found his peace. Numerous letters to his brother Theo reveal so, as he goes into great detail describing every small joy of being, from the landscape to his interior decorations – both of which fascinated him. He wrote of the comradery between the patients, of their mutual support, of how some were great listeners or simply reserved people that never disturbed him when he was painting outside, as opposed to city dwellers who always mocked or harassed him.

His new compounds translated into his art. He became fascinated by nature and all its elements, more in detail than as an ensemble. Very few of his paintings of this phase portrayed the sky in more than some sparse patches. They focused on the specifics – trees, bushes, lilacs, flowers. He confessed to his brother that even though he still held Impressionism dear, the ability to simply look and not strive to make any big statements freed him from all artistic reins of “isms”.

“We don’t have to live for great ideas any longer, but, believe me, for small ones only. And I find that a wonderful relief”

Here, he found the playful dynamic of brush strokes, resulting in his staple looseness of lines. He learned how to look, truly look, to see beyond representation, uncaged from the conventions of perspective or naturalness. Instead, he found another “nature”, the essence of the object revealed through its color, as well as its core trapped in its shape.

Color-wise, he let himself be inspired by the cold, soft tones of the French countryside, notorious for its lavander harvests. He differentiated these newly-discovered hues as “violet”, “purplish blue”, “lilac”, “pale lilac”, “tender lilac”, “broken lilac”, “plain lilac”, “gray rose”, “yellowish rose”, “greenish rose”, “violet rose”. He observed that he’d often contrast these with yellow, which reminded him of the much more turbulent urban palette, as an ode to his past life.

“I felt tempted to begin again with the simpler colors,” he wrote to his brother.

Irises, V. Van Gogh, oil on canvas (1889)
Olive Trees, V. Van Gogh, oil on canvas (1889)

Notoriously, here he also became fascinated by cypress trees. One of a dozen studies of them revealed a very familiar image – the dark, twisted figure of a cypress tree, against a vibrant celestial scenery.

Enfin, I have a new study of a starry sky.”

Although his constraints at Saint Paul were loose, he wasn’t allowed to go out at night as he would’ve loved, to paint the night sky directly under the stars. Confined to his room, he could only gaze at the constellation Aries from a small quadrant, behind the bars. All his observations made it onto his canvas at daytime.

The village depicted is based on the town Saint-Remi, which Van Gogh documented through many sketches. However, in his painting, he oversimplified it to a mere village of a few houses, even the domineering church of Saint Martin becoming a simple country chapel. He grounded the village behind the cypress tree in the foreground, and painted directly from imagination, unschooled by any subject in front of him (as it had been the case for all his other paintings at this time).

Working Title/Artist: Cypresses Department: European Paintings Culture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: Working Date: 1889 scanned for collections

Lead by his mind, rather than his eye, he focused on the flow of light and the complexity of the darkness surrounding it. He was inspired by childhood literature, with his idol, Dickens, having written of “a whole world with all its greatness and littleness” visible “in a twinkling star”; by ancient Egyptian painting which, he noted, was driven by instinct, rather than ethos; by Symbolist poetry; by Andersen’s tales and Verne’s adventures. Starry Night is the melting pot of all these references.

A century later, research into epilepsy revealed that the fits resembled “fireworks of electrical impulses” in the brain or, as William James called them, “nerve storms” of unusual neural discharges that could be set off by only a few “epileptic neurons” in a brain made up of billions of them.

Wheatfield with Cypress Tree, V. Van Gogh, oil on canvas (1890)

The entire sense of consciousness and identity could be affected in a person suffering from it and, even though epileptic fits weren’t lethal, they did leave permanent damage on the brain. The afflicted could never fully recover, which ultimately lead to the deterioration of brain functions. The pattern of fits, followed by a period of complete lethargy, became known as “temporal lobe epilepsy”.

To the uneducated eye, these post-seizure apathetic states resembled, by all means, serenity. An unusual calmness, an eerie passivity. However, as the cycle goes, this phase always progressed into highly tormented states of mind — intense enthusiasms, fixed ideas, zaniness, paranoia, agitation and violence.

Unfortunately for Van Gogh, Starry Night signaled an even more drastic descent into the madness which ultimately lead to his demise.

Nowadays we can reflect on all that has been discovered and wonder to what extent one man’s tragedy shaped generations of artists to come, as well as the public’s perception of what it means to be a creative individual. And, most of all, we can finally take a closer look at how a painting that hugely affected the art world, was a stepping stone of another kind for its creator.

This article is based on the chapter “Starry Night”, from Van Gogh: The Life by S. Naifeh and G.W. Smith

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