The Starry Night

The Starry Night

"the starry sky at last, actually painted at night, under a gas-lamp. The sky is green-blue, the water is royal blue, the fields are mauve. The town is blue and violet. The gaslight is yellow, and its reflections are red gold and go right down to green bronze. Against the green-blue field of the sky the Great Bear has a green and pink sparkle whose discreet paleness contrasts with the harsh gold of the gaslight. Two small coloured figures of lovers in the foreground."
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In this summer canvas from Arles, in the south of Provence, Vincent paints at night, using the light of a gaslamp to capture a graceful curve of the Rhone River with reflected lights shimmering on the waters.  In the sky is Ursa Major, The Big Bear or Big Dipper constellation of stars depicted in shades of yellow against a cold and deep blue sky.  A couple, arm in arm are strolling toward the artist and the viewer is swept left and up by diagonal brush strokes following the bows of the high masted boats at low center.  The curve of the shoreline studded with gas lamps takes the viewer downriver to the distant steeples under an immense starlit cruise.

Gauguin will arrive about one month after Vincent paints Starry Night over the Rhone and will leave less than three months after arriving.  Vincent will have a breakdown and be hospitalized in both Arles and Saint Remy for his safety and the safety of those around him as the painting is chosen for public exhibition.

Starry Night over the Rhone and Irises will become two of his best known and most beloved canvases after they are selected for exhibition at the 1889 salon des independentes. Unfortunately, Vincent’s illness and encroaching fame coincide with the timing of the exhibition so the result for him is bittersweet.  Theo chooses Starry Night and Irises on his brother’s behalf and the display of these two works stealing the show in Monet’s opinion…

 

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“My dear Theo,

Thank you very much for your letter and for the 50-franc note it contained. It’s not a rosy prospect that the pains in your leg have come back — my God — it should have to be possible for you to live in the south as well, because I always think that what we need is sunshine and fine weather and blue air as the most dependable remedy. The weather’s still fine here, and if it was always like that it would be better than the painters’ paradise, it would be Japan altogether. How I think of you and of Gauguin and of Bernard, everywhere and at all times! It’s so beautiful, and I’d so much like to see everyone over here.
Included herewith little croquis of a square no. 30 canvas — the starry sky at last, actually painted at night, under a gas-lamp. The sky is green-blue, the water is royal blue, the fields are mauve. The town is blue and violet. The gaslight is yellow, and its reflections are red gold and go right down to green bronze. Against the green-blue field of the sky the Great Bear has a green and pink sparkle whose discreet paleness contrasts with the harsh gold of the gaslight.  Two small coloured figures of lovers in the foreground.”

 

To Theo. Arles, on or about Saturday, 29 September 1888

 

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“In any case, as regards the Independents, do what seems best to you and what the others will do”

To Theo. Arles, Monday, 7 January 1889

From the Van Gogh Letters website:  Evidently Theo had been asked to submit works by Vincent to the fifth exhibition of the Société des Artistes Indépendants, to be held in Paris from 3 September to 4 October 1889. At their 1888 exhibition Van Gogh had exhibited three works; It is possible that the exhibition, which was usually held in the spring, was postponed to coincide with the World Exhibition (5 May – 5 November).

 

The fourth exhibition of the Société des Artistes Indépendants was due to be staged in Paris from 22 March to 3 May 1888. This society, founded in 1884 by Odilon Redon, Albert Dubois-Pillet, Georges Seurat, Paul Signac, Charles Angrand and Henri Edmond Cross, invited artists to exhibit at its alternative Salon, where the works were not adjudicated.

 

These landscapes are Montmartre: behind the Moulin de la Galette (F 316 / JH 1246) and Vegetable gardens in Montmartre (F 350 / JH 1245). The third work Theo chose was Piles of French novels and roses in a glass (‘Romans parisiens’) (F 359 / JH 133); see letter 584, n. 13.

See Société des Artistes Indépendants. Catalogue des Oeuvres exposés. 4e Exposition. Exhib. cat. Paris 1888, p. 42, cat. nos. 658-660.

Theo interpreted Vincent’s offhand attitude towards the selection of the works as a sign that he did not really care about being represented at this exhibition: ‘He himself doesn’t attach much importance to this exhibition, but here, where there are so many painters, it’s essential to make himself known and the exhibition is the best means of doing it’ (FR b915, Theo to Willemien, 14 March 1888).

 

Theo mentioned the exhibition again in May 1889 (see letter 774), and eventually submitted two of Vincent’s works: Starry night over the Rhône (F 474 / JH 1592) and Irises (F 608 / JH 1691), recorded in the catalogue as ‘Nuit étoilée’ (Starry night) and ‘Étude d’oies’ (Study of geese) [sic].

See exhib. cat. Paris 1889-1, p. 20, cat. nos. 272-273, and cf. letter 799.

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Vincent is in Saint Remy and the asylum for about a month when he and Theo converse about preserving some of the paintings he has created in Arles some months before:

“I think that you would do well to wash the canvases that are quite quite dry with water and a little spirits of wine to remove the oil and the thinner from the impasto. The same for the night café and the green vineyard, and above all for the landscape that was in the walnut frame. The night also (but that one has recent retouchings which might run with the spirits of wine).

 

I’ve been here almost a whole month, not one single time have I had the slightest desire to be elsewhere; just the will to work again is becoming a tiny bit firmer.”

To Theo. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, between about Friday, 31 May and about Thursday, 6 June 1889

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When the 1889 Salon is held, Theo writes to Vincent, then secluded in the asylum of Saint Paul de Mausole in Saint Remy, of his impression of the show and Vincent’s works on display:

“Now I must also tell you that the Independents’ exhibition is open and that in it there are your two paintings, ‘The irises’ and the Starry night. The latter is badly placed, for one can’t position oneself far enough away, as the room is very narrow, but the other one looks extremely well. They’ve placed it on the narrow side of the room and it strikes you from a long way off. It’s a fine study, full of air and life.
There are some Lautrecs which look very well, among them a Ball at the Moulin de la Galette which is very good. One could send only two paintings each because the exhibition is being held in premises much smaller than where it was up to now. Seurat has some seasides, Signac two landscapes. There’s also a painting by Hayet, that friend of Lucien Pissarro: place de la Concorde in the evening with carriages, the gaslights etc. It’s a little like that painting of the tumblers by Seurat, but more harmonious.”

Theo to Vincent. Paris, Thursday, 5 September 1889

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Painting, Oil on Canvas – 72.5 x 92 cm size 30 Figure
Arles, France: September 28, 1888
Musée d’Orsay
Paris, France, Europe
F: 474, JH: 1592

Where Vincent Was:
Arles

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