The Art Assignment

S4 E4 | FULL EPISODE

Better Know: The Starry Night

Sure, you've seen Vincent Van Gogh's famed painting The Starry Night before. And maybe you know of him as a tortured soul. But let's take a closer look behind this most recognizable work of art.

AIRED: February 16, 2018 | 0:07:23
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TRANSCRIPT

[TONES]

[MUSIC PLAYING]

NARRATOR: Yeah, you know this picture.

You can probably name its creator and at least

one detail about his life.

And I bet you know the title, too.

I mean, heck, you might have even done the puzzle.

It depicts some trees, a town, and, of course, a night sky,

something we've all seen in one form or another.

So what's so special about it?

Is it the image itself that enchants us, the thickly

applied whorls of paint?

Or is it the story of the tortured artist behind it?

Let's better know "The Starry Night."

When Vincent van Gogh--

and, yes, I'm going to try to say my own botched version

of his Dutch name--

painted the picture in June of 1889,

rapid industrial development was underway

in much of Western Europe and the world.

Railroads made travel easier than ever.

Karl Benz had begun to sell the first commercially available

motor wagon.

The first skyscrapers were going up.

The Moulin Rouge opened that year in Paris,

along with that kind of famous structure, the Eiffel Tower,

marking the entrance to that year's World's Fair.

Charlie Chaplin was born in 1889,

followed four days later by Adolf Hitler.

That year, Mark Twain published "A Yankee

in King Arthur's Court."

Nellie Bly circumnavigated the globe in 72 days.

And Chef Raffaele Esposito invented the Pizza Margherita.

In the wider world of art, Impressionism was out.

The more methodical, scientifically rigorous

Neo-Impressionism was in.

And Cezanne and the artists who would later

be called Post-Impressionists were bubbling up.

Rather than making new optical impressions of the world,

like the Impressionists, these artists

were more interested in expressing

their emotional and psychological impressions

through style, symbol, and bold use of color.

Our man Vincent was among them.

Born in the Netherlands in 1853, he bounced around Europe

throughout his teens and early 20s

until returning home in 1880, committed

to becoming a great painter.

His surroundings became his subject matter,

developing his skills as a draftsman and painter,

using a mostly dark palette to document

rural landscapes, still lifes, and Dutch peasants.

He moved around Europe and eventually made his way

to Paris in 1886.

There, he encountered and metabolized

the work of the Impressionists and collected Japanese prints.

We can see his brushwork loosen and palette brighten.

But he found the city frantic, overwhelming, and cold,

and decided to move south to Arles,

where he embraced what he thought of as a more purer

subject matter--

the countryside, more still lifes, a small town,

and its residents, who became his friends.

He depicted the changing seasons with an increasingly

acute and intense attention to color.

Vincent corresponded frequently with his younger brother

Theo, who supported him both financially and emotionally.

In his letters, Vincent sensitively and eloquently

shares thoughts about art, life, and his unrelenting struggle

with his mental health.

On April 9, 1888, he wrote to Theo,

"I must also have a starry night with cypresses, or perhaps

above all a field of ripe corn; there are some wonderful nights

here."

That summer, he painted several night scenes, which

he found to be, quote, "much more alive

and richly colored than the day," a gaslit interior of Cafe

de la Gare, a portrait of his friend

Eugene against a starry sky, and the banks

of the River at night.

Night was not a new preoccupation for painters.

And van Gogh was certainly aware of his contemporaries' efforts.

While productive, he longed for contact with other artists.

So Theo arranged for Paul Gauguin,

who had been painting in Brittany,

to come his way in October of '88 for artistic exchange

and to be Vincent's roomie.

But it didn't last long.

The two disagreed.

And by the end of December, Gaughin was gone,

and Vincent suffered a psychological crisis

that involved his infamous mutilation of his own ear.

In 1889, he entered himself into an asylum at Saint-Rémy,

situated at the foot of the Alpilles Mountains.

And it's here that he painted our picture in question,

one of many he made of the landscape that surrounded him.

He wrote to Theo, "This morning, I saw the countryside

from my window a long time before sunrise,

with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big."

Now, there are a number of ways this picture is not accurate.

He couldn't see the town from his window.

And even if he could, the steeple

didn't look like the one he painted,

which bears closer resemblance to the steeples

of his native Holland.

The morning star is probably Venus,

which he could have seen.

But at the time, the moon was unlikely to have

been a crescent but instead a waning gibbous.

The dramatic swirling patterns in the sky,

which dominate the canvas, do kinda, sorta match

then-published observations of spiral nebulae or galaxies.

But they wouldn't have been visible to him.

Some studies claim the swirling sky and radiating stars

demonstrate luminance, with scaling

similar to that of the mathematical theory

of turbulence.

Some have even linked this depiction

of physical turbulence with times

of psychological turbulence for van Gogh.

But other theorists convincingly speculate

the swirls represent--

wait for it-- wind, clouds propelled

by the mistral, the strong northwesterly wind of Provence

that the artist wrote of.

Accuracy is not the point.

The picture is based on observation and memories

of places but is driven by emotion.

The sky is painted wet on wet, executed quickly

and confidently.

The composition is superbly balanced.

The vertical of the cypresses and steeple

counteract the horizontal of the town

and stabilize the diagonal of the tumbling mountain range.

The town is still, emphasizing the dramatic action

everywhere else.

The hills are rolling.

The cypresses flicker like flames.

And the sky is in spectacular motion.

There are many interpretations of this piece.

Cypress are often associated with the afterlife, a bridge

between the Earth and Heaven.

And Vincent wouldn't live much more than a year

after the painting's creation, dying by suicide

in July of 1890.

Some see the painting as inspired by a religious mood

or achieved in a state of heightened

reality or great agitation.

But the evidence doesn't show this.

He had written of the vast peace and majesty of the night sky,

in fact.

And wrote, "The sight of the stars always makes me dream."

Theo didn't love the piece and wrote,

"I think that the search for some style

is prejudicial to the true sentiment of things."

But it's style that Vincent was desperately seeking,

which he had committed to discovering for himself.

Back in 1874, he wrote to his brother,

"Painters understand nature and love it, and teach us to see."

With "Starry Night," van Gogh does just that.

He teaches us to see the sky, not as it looks but perhaps

as it feels.

This image is universal in that we've all

looked out on a night sky.

But never have we seen it quite like this.

In a career that lasted only a decade,

van Gogh articulated a style that we can't forget,

that continues to draw crowds and captivate us.

"The Starry Night" inspired Don McLean in 1971

to write a song about its misunderstood creator, never

appreciated during his lifetime, which

was played on repeat in 1996 in Tupac Shakur's hospital room

as he died.

Vincent's life story has been adapted to film

on a number of occasions, including the recent "Loving

Vincent," a fully painted, animated film that

brings "The Starry Night," among other works, to life.

But "The Starry Night stands for much more than the search

for recognition or immortality.

With this work, we feel our smallness standing

on the Earth and the hugeness that lies above and beyond.

We feel the striving and the desire

to share with others the world, not as it is but as we see it.

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