Saturday, November 24, 2007

Why "Starry Night"?

At a holiday party this weekend, someone I was chatting with casually mentioned her "Capitol One credit card with Starry Night on it." There had been several designs to pick from, and she chose Starry Night because she knew it was Van Gogh. And it was pretty.

Show a picture of "Starry Night" to just about anybody, and they can tell you it's Van Gogh, or at the very least, "that guy who cut off his ear." What's in the art history survey textbooks, be it Gardner or Stokstad or Jansen? "Starry Night." What can you find as a switchplate cover, a tote bag, an umbrella, a mousepad, a throw blanket? "Starry Night."

Truth is, Vincent didn't consider "Starry Night" particularly important among his works. He painted it in June 1889 while at the asylum of St-Paul-de-Mausole just outside St-Remy-de-Provence, and contrary to popular belief, didn't paint it while looking out his barred room window at the night sky and the mountains. No, he painted it in his studio elsewhere in the building, and if you go to St-Paul-de-Mausole (which I did back in the summer), you see quite clearly that there is no view of Saint-Remy from where Vincent's room would have been. Nor does Saint-Remy even look like the town in "Starry Night." Vincent made up that sweet little Dutch-looking town in the painting, and he imagined that night sky too. He mentions the painting fairly casually to Theo in a letter, doesn't say much about it, and Theo in response doesn't show much enthusiasm for it. (Theo thought Vincent's paintings worked better when they came from nature.) I guarantee you that if Vincent himself picked the paintings that go in the art history textbook, he would NOT pick "Starry Night." (I think he'd pick the London version of Sunflowers and the Harvest in Arles in the Van Gogh Museum.)

So why is "Starry Night" so famous? Why do the tourists flock to it in the Museum of Modern Art, examine it with hushed voices as if in a church, and virtually ignore Vincent's beautiful Olive Trees hanging next to it? Is it the brilliant colors or just brilliant marketing? Or is it the stars themselves--so different from any other starry night Vincent painted--that make us dream?

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