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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.

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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 Moulon 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 (?~1:11) invented the pizza margherita.  In the wider world of art, impressionism was out.  The more methodical scientifically rigorous neoimpressionism 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, the 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.

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There, he encountered and metabolised 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 pure 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, "Much more alive and richly colored than the day." A gas-lit interior of Cafe de la Gare, a portrait of his friend Eugene against a starry sky, and the banks of the river Rhone 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 Gaugin, who'd 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, Gaugin 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-Remy, 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.

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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."

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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 and 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 McClain 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.  

If you're interested in better knowing the why behind things we encounter every day, then check out the new series "Origin of Everything" from PBS Digital Studios.  It explores the unfamiliar history behind familiar ideas and objects, from where the hashtag came from to why we get grades in school.  I found the episode  on why women give birth lying down to be particularly interesting and kind of wish I'd watched it before giving birth to two children lying down.  

This episode is supported in part by viewers like you through Patreon.  Special thanks to our grand master of the arts, Indianapolis Homes Realty.  

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