A well known artist of his own accord, Vincent Van Gogh is perhaps most famous for his "starry night" paintings, including both his masterpiece Starry Night (1889) and its predecessor, Starry Night Over the Rhone, painted in September 1888. While the meaning of Starry Night is often debated and analyzed, less attention is given to the meaning behind Starry Night Over the Rhone, one of Van Gogh's first "starry night" paintings. What does Starry Night Over the Rhone mean?
As an artist, Vincent Van Gogh was prone to painting places and locations that had personal meaning and were familiar to him. Starry Night commemorates the view Van Gogh had from his window during his hospitalization in the mental asylum in Arles in 1889. Painted a little over a year before that, Starry Night Over the Rhone is the view Van Gogh had of the Rhone River from his rented apartment in Place Lamartine. Although Starry Night is more famous, Starry Night Over the Rhone commemorates a happier time in Van Gogh's life and autobiography.
A personal letter Van Gogh wrote to his friend Eugene Boch in 1888 will perhaps help us develop a better analysis of Starry Night Over the Rhone. In the letter, Van Gogh talks conversationally about refurnishing his place, commenting on the "cheerful" atmosphere of his new home. The artist also mentions how busy he is working on new paintings, his industry and productivity during this period perhaps partly accounting for his high spirits. Along with Cafe Terrace at Night, Van Gogh also describes another one of his new paintings to his friend, a study that would come to be known as Starry Night Over the Rhone.
In the quote above, Vincent Van Gogh discusses Starry Night Over the Rhone, what he refers to as "the starry sky painted by night." In true painterly fashion, Van Gogh includes extensive detail pertaining to the "colourful" aspects of the painting, mentioning no less than twelve colors in his short description of the Rhone painting, presumably to help Boch imagine what the painting would look like when complete.
In addition to his exhaustive rundown of the painting's color palette, Van Gogh also comments on the astrological aspects of his new artwork, pointing out his careful inclusion of the Great Bear constellation in the "starry sky" above. Van Gogh's inclusion of the Great Bear constellation in Starry Night Over the Rhone and the attention he gives to staying "true to nature," so to speak, deserves consideration. Van Gogh is often stereotyped as an painter more concerned with documenting subjective subject matter, but his scientific documentation of the constellation of stars in the Rhone painting shows the artist as one interested in portraying natural landscapes "as they are."
After describing the painting's background at length, Van Gogh hastily moves on to discuss the "foreground" of Starry Night Over the Rhone in his 1888 letter, finally drawing attention to the curious presence of what he describes as "two colourful figurines of lovers." While it seems acceptable that the two people in the painting are "lovers" or perhaps a married couple, the artist's commentary on the painting abruptly stops there, effectively leaving it up to the viewer to interpret the rest of the painting.
Based on Van Gogh's personal description of the painting and the sketch provided in his 1888 letter, there is evidence to suggest that Starry Night Over the Rhone is actually a "cheerful" painting of "lovers" out for an enjoyable evening stroll along the banks of the scenic Rhone riverside under a bright starlit sky. While a romantic meaning may have been intended by the artist, certain details and ambiguity in the final oil painting of Starry Night Over the Rhone may indicate the existence of a darker meaning to the painting.
Although Van Gogh's overall attitude toward the Starry Night Over the Rhone sketch seemed "cheerful" when he first described it in 1888, is it possible that the artist revised the overall meaning and mood of the painting when he finally painted it in oil later that year, perhaps letting his growing depression warp the original sketch's romantic appeal?
On close analysis of the foreground of Starry Night Over the Rhone, the lack of separation between the water and the blue-stroked land in the oil painting casts the illusion that the "lovers" are actually wading out of the waters of the Rhone river, possibly escaping a sinking boat ambiguously depicted in the water behind them. While the separation between the waters and land is clearly demarcated in the preliminary sketch Van Gogh included along with his 1888 letter to Boch, the location of the lovers in the final oil painting is far less exact, causing us to question whether this ambiguity is an intentional update to the painting or perhaps a compositional error on the part of the artist. Is the boat behind the lovers docked or sinking?
The ambiguity of the "figurines" in the foreground of Starry Night Over the Rhone make the meaning Vincent Van Gogh's first "starry sky" painting truly open to interpretation. Starry Night Over the Rhone may hide a "glass half empty or half full" meaning to it, its meaning dependent upon what interpretation the individual viewer prefers. Is Starry Night Over the Rhone one of Van Gogh's last "cheerful" paintings, simply commemorating a romantic evening shared between two "lovers"? Or, on the other hand, did Van Gogh alter the contents of the ambiguous foreground of the final oil painting to conceal a tragic event within the story of the painting to reflect his own darkening mindset toward relationships and life in general?
At the end of the day, Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night Over the Rhone (1888) indeed seems to ask more questions than answer them. Because Starry Night and Starry Night Over the Rhone were painted during the same time period and cover similar imagery, it is tempting to view the Rhone painting almost as a preliminary study for Starry Night. While the meaning of Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night Over the Rhone is open for interpretation, the painting and Van Gogh's 1888 letter serve as good indicators of Van Gogh's overall mindset during this bittersweet period in his life and career as an artist.