Starry Night: Meaning of the Vincent Van Gogh Landscape Painting

BY K Shabi Updated: 08 Oct 2021     PUBLISHED 04 Jun 2013

Starry Night (1889) by Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh is one of the most famous and reproduced works of art in the world today. Aptly named for its swirling night sky filled with dazzling stars, the secret hidden meaning behind the painting is not easily identifiable at first glance. What is the true meaning of Vincent Van Gogh's Impressionist masterpiece Starry Night?

Starry Night: Meaning of the Vincent Van Gogh Landscape Painting interpretation analysis
Vincent Van Gogh - Starry Night (1889)

Vincent Van Gogh's Life & the History Behind Starry Night

Was Vincent Van Gogh crazy? It's no secret that Vincent Van Gogh struggled with mental health issues and insanity throughout his life. The now legendary story of Van Gogh cutting off his ear after a fight with his friend, the French artist Paul Gauguin, has become one of the most popular anecdotes in art history. The incident supposedly occurred in winter 1888, the year before Van Gogh painted Starry Night and not long before his mysterious death, seemingly by suicide, in 1890. Van Gogh was committed to a mental health asylum in Saint-Rémy, France soon after the ear incident. Most art history scholars believe that Van Gogh painted Starry Night while in the psychiatric hospital and that the famous landscape in the painting is the view Van Gogh enjoyed from his bedroom window. Does Van Gogh's lifelong struggle with insanity and mental illness contribute anything else to the meaning of Starry Night?

Van Gogh: Art Between Impressionism and Expressionism

Sadly for Van Gogh, it wasn't just those who heard the story about him cutting off his ear who thought the painter was insane. Art critics at the time, who had a big say in making and breaking the careers of struggling artists, were also convinced that Van Gogh's signature artistic style and technique, characterized by bright, heavy brushstrokes, was sloppy, crude and childish — just not as good as some of the art painted by his peers and contemporaries. For the most part, other mid-nineteenth century painters were still interested in objectivity and realism, carefully painting landscapes and portraits that showed off their technical skills. Van Gogh, on the other hand, liked to paint fast and used his exaggerated and expressive brushstrokes to visualize his own experience, thus revealing his personal feelings about the subjects he painted.

Van Gogh is now one of the most famous artists of all time and is widely recognized for paving the way for Expressionism, Surrealism and the more progressive art movements of the twentieth century. However, his art was largely unappreciated and unknown during his lifetime. The negative emotions and feelings of failure Van Gogh must have experienced as a struggling and unappreciated artist come through in Starry Night and color the overall meaning of the painting. Yet there is more to the story and the meaning of Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night than just insanity, failure and tragedy. Perhaps the real reason why Starry Night is so famous and appreciated today is not due to the negative emotions and experiences that may have originally surrounded the artist, but the simple message of hope and faith that shines through.

"A great starlit vault of heaven...one can only call God."Vincent Van Gogh, 1888

Religious Interpretation of Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night

Some art history scholars believe there is a religious hidden meaning to Starry Night. With his father a pastor and his uncle a theologian, Van Gogh came from a religious background and even served as a missionary in his younger days before devoting himself to art. In Starry Night, a church steeple stands out prominently above the smaller buildings in the shadowy town below. The moon and stars of the night sky are surrounded by large glowing halos of light. In art history, halos carry a strong religious meaning and were typically used to imply divinity and holiness. Halos appear often in pre-Renaissance art around the heads of key Biblical figures including Jesus Christ, Mary the Madonna, Moses and others.

Van Gogh never abandoned his curiosity about religion. In a personal letter from 1888, the year before Starry Night was painted, Van Gogh described "a great starlit vault of heaven...one can only call God." Was Van Gogh already planning and conceptualizing Starry Night at the time of this letter's writing? Starry Night was not Van Gogh's first starry night painting. In 1888, Van Gogh painted Starry Night over the Rhone and Café Terrace at Night. Both paintings feature a bold blue sky adorned with big, bright stars. What was it about the idea of a starry night that inspired Van Gogh to revisit the topic again and again?

Then he dreamed still another dream and told it to his brothers, saying, "Look, I have dreamed another dream. And this time, the sun, the moon and the eleven stars bowed down to me." Genesis 37:9 (NKJV)

Biblical Meaning of Vincent Van Gogh's Most Famous Art: A Genesis Quote?

There may be a secret Biblical meaning painted into Starry Night. Why did Van Gogh paint exactly 11 stars? By including exactly eleven stars in Starry Night Van Gogh may have been alluding to Genesis 37:9, a key verse in the biblical account of Joseph. In the Bible, Joseph is characterized as a "dreamer." An outcast, Joseph is ostracized and ultimately betrayed by his eleven brothers, suffering through many hardships and years of imprisonment. It is not hard to see why Van Gogh might have identified with the Biblical character of Joseph as there are basic parallels in their stories. As an artist, Van Gogh failed to gain the recognition and respect of his own peers and fellow artists. Later in life, he was confined to the Saint-Rémy asylum in France, far away from his homeland and the connection to the art community he once had.

Van Gogh Starry Night Meaning interpretation analysis: Bible secret meaning hidden Genesis 11 stars
The 11 Stars of Van Gogh's Starry Night

Starry Night: A Secret Message to the Art Critics

Is there any other meaning behind these eleven stars? It’s easy to see how Van Gogh could relate to the story of an outcast and a dreamer who didn't experience a lot of luck early in life, but there might be more than just religious meaning in Van Gogh's reference to this specific Bible verse. Is it possible the painting also contains a secret message for his art critics? In Genesis 37:9, Joseph believes his dream is prophetic and that the eleven stars, symbolic of his brothers, will "bow down" to him in the future. Did Van Gogh, like Joseph, believe that one day the tables would turn? Perhaps Van Gogh intended for Starry Night to work as a personal statement concerning his own poor critical reception as an artist. If so, did Van Gogh paint himself into the artwork?

“The cypresses are always occupying my thoughts.” Vincent Van Gogh, letter to his brother Theo

Van Gogh's Cypress: A Self-Portrait with Autobiographical Meaning?

If the 11 stars of Starry Night symbolize Van Gogh's critics, where is Vincent Van Gogh in the painting? While open for interpretation, there is evidence that Van Gogh saw himself in the looming cypress trees featured prominently in the foreground of the painting. Like daffodils and starry nights, cyprus trees grew everywhere in Saint-Rémy and reappear in several of Van Gogh’s paintings, most notably in Cypresses and Wheat Field with Cypresses, both from 1889. In a letter to his brother, Van Gogh mentioned his curious fascination with the trees, stating, "The cypresses are always occupying my thoughts."

The large cypress in Starry Night is the most eye-catching but at the same time ambiguous figure in the painting. Its towering presence contrasts heavily against the brightly colored stars, with its dark creeping limbs reaching up for the luminescent night sky above. Do the stars bow down to this formidable cypress? As Starry Night was painted near the end of Van Gogh's life, the depressed artist may have identified with this awkward, shadowy figure standing tall even in the company of brighter, shinier objects that may attract more attention. In this way, Starry Night can truly function as a symbolic self-portrait of the artist Vincent Van Gogh.

The True Meaning of Van Gogh's Starry Night Painting

What is the hidden meaning of Van Gogh's Starry Night? In some ways, Starry Night has more meaning today than it did when it was first painted in 1889. If we want to see it, we can find a magical and even prophetic meaning in this painting. While Van Gogh died a poor struggling artist, he is now one of the most reproduced painters today. In some ways now more than just a painting, Starry Night has also been immortalized in the popular song "Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)" by Don McLean. Although he died before he could see it for himself, Van Gogh hopefully would be happy with the far-reaching fame and recognition his art now enjoys today. Perhaps Van Gogh’s dream really did come true.

filed under: art, bible
LEGOMENON:

Guernica Meaning: Analysis & Interpretation of Painting by Pablo Picasso

What is the meaning of Guernica, the 1937 mural by Pablo Picasso? Spain and bullfighting influence the meaning of this famous anti war painting.

American Gothic Meaning: Grant Wood Painting Interpretation & Analysis

What is the meaning of the painting American Gothic (1930) by Grant Wood? Interpretation and analysis of this famous example of 20th century American regional art.

Meaning of The Scream (1893) Painting by Edvard Munch: Art Analysis

What is the meaning of The Scream 1893 painting by Edvard Munch? The Scream meaning, art analysis and interpretation.

Edward Hopper Nighthawks Diner Painting Meaning & Film Noir Analysis

What is the meaning of artist Edward Hopper's diner painting Nighthawks? The scene seems to come straight out of classic Hollywood film noir.

Meaning & Analysis: Starry Night Over the Rhone by Vincent Van Gogh

What does Starry Night Over the Rhone mean? The meaning of Starry Night is often debated and analyzed, but less attention is given to the meaning behind Starry Night Over the Rhone, one of Van Gogh's first starry night paintings.

Siouxsie & The Banshees Metal Postcard, John Heartfield Photomontage Art

What does Siouxsie and the Banshees' post punk music have to do with anti Nazi Berlin Dada art? Everything!

Salvador Dali Persistence of Memory: Meaning of the Melting Clocks

What is the meaning of the famous Surrealist artist Salvador Dali's melting clocks painting "Persistence of Memory"?

Garden of Earthly Delights: Analysis & Meaning of the Bosch Painting

What is the meaning of the famous painting Garden of Earthly Delights by artist Hieronymus Bosch? Can we really find modern significance in any interpretation of this mysterious work of art?

What is the meaning?

Garden of Earthly Delights: Analysis & Meaning of the Bosch Painting

Garden of Earthly Delights: Analysis & Meaning of the Bosch Painting

What is the meaning of the famous painting Garden of Earthly Delights by artist Hieronymus Bosch? Can we really find modern significance in any interpretation of this mysterious work of art?

Paint it Black Meaning: Rolling Stones

Paint it Black Meaning: Rolling Stones' Song Lyrics Interpretation & Analysis

What is the meaning of the song "Paint it Black" by the Rolling Stones? An interpretation and analysis of the song lyrics reveals the importance of the Vietnam War in "Paint it Black."

Dreamcatcher Meaning: History, Legend & Origins of Dream Catchers

Dreamcatcher Meaning: History, Legend & Origins of Dream Catchers

What is the meaning and history of dream catchers? What are the origins, legend and story behind the dreamcatcher?

Meaning of Radiohead

Meaning of Radiohead's Kid A "Bear" Art: Inspired by Charles Burchfield?

What is the meaning of the Radiohead bear art? The Kid A bear logo has become a symbol of Radiohead itself and may have been inspired by American artist Charles Burchfield.

Shakespearean Insults: William Shakespeare Insult List & Generator

Shakespearean Insults: William Shakespeare Insult List & Generator

Want to insult someone William Shakespeare style? Check out this list of Shakespearean insults. Get your own Shakespearean insults with our insult generator!

Matryoshka Nesting Dolls: Meaning of Russian Wooden Stacking Doll

Matryoshka Nesting Dolls: Meaning of Russian Wooden Stacking Doll

What is the meaning and history of the Russian Matryoshka nesting doll? Learn more about the fascinating souvenir and folk art stacking doll from Russia!