Starry Night (1889) by Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh is one of the most famous pieces of art in the world today. Starry Night may be one of the best known and most reproduced pieces of art in the world today, but most people can't really tell you why, or explain the hidden meaning behind the painting. What is the true meaning of Vincent Van Gogh's Impressionist masterpiece Starry Night?
It's no secret that Vincent Van Gogh struggled with mental health issues throughout his life. The story of Van Gogh cutting off his ear after a fight with his friend, the French artist Paul Gauguin, is one of the most popular anecdotes in art history, and supposedly occurred in winter 1888, the year before Van Gogh painted Starry Night and not long before Van Gogh's death in 1890. Keeping with his reputation as a "crazy" artist, Van Gogh was committed to a mental health asylum in Arles after the ear incident. Though up for debate, some art scholars believe Van Gogh painted Starry Night while in the mental hospital, and that the landscape in the painting is the view Van Gogh had from his window. Does Van Gogh's lifelong struggle with mental illness contribute anything else to the meaning of Starry Night?
Sadly, it wasn't only those who heard about Van Gogh 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 style, characterized by bright and heavy brushstrokes, was sloppy, crude and childish — just not as good as some of the more traditional work done by other artists of the time. While other painters working in the mid-nineteenth century were mostly interested in painting landscapes and portraits that looked like photographs, Van Gogh used his exaggerated and expressive brushstrokes to visualize the way he felt inside, thus revealing his personal feelings about the subjects he painted.
While Starry Night and Van Gogh's other paintings were obviously ahead of their time and paved the way for Expressionism, one of the big artistic movements of the early twentieth century, the art of Van Gogh was largely unappreciated during his lifetime. The feelings of isolation Van Gogh must have experienced as a struggling and unappreciated artist before and after he entered the Arles asylum are visible in Starry Night and color the overall meaning of the painting. There is more to the story and the meaning of Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night than just insanity and isolation.
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 inspired the artwork, but its simple suggestions of hope. In the painting, bright lights, the stars, shine down over the dark night landscape. Many art scholars believe there is a religious hidden meaning to Starry Night. In a personal letter from 1888, Van Gogh described "a great starlit vault of heaven...one can only call God." Was Van Gogh already thinking about and conceptualizing Starry Night at the time of this letter's writing? Starry Night was not Van Gogh's first "Starry night" painting; Van Gogh painted Starry Night over the Rhone the year before. What was it about the idea of a starry night that inspired Van Gogh to revisit the topic?
With a theologian for an uncle, Van Gogh himself was also religious, even serving as a missionary in his younger days. In the painting Starry Night, the moon and stars in the night sky are surrounded by large halos of light while a church steeple stands out above the smaller, less detailed buildings in the town below. In fact, there may be a biblical meaning in the number of stars painted in Starry Night that alludes to a specific Bible verse in Genesis 37.
Why did Van Gogh paint exactly 11 stars? By painting exactly eleven stars in the Starry Night painting, Vincent Van Gogh might have been directly referencing Genesis 37:9, a key verse in the biblical account of Joseph, a "dreamer" and an outcast among his eleven brothers. It isn't hard to see why Van Gogh might have identified with the Biblical character of Joseph in Genesis. In the Bible, Joseph underwent many hardships and years of imprisonment, much like Van Gogh did the last years of his life cooped up in the Arles asylum. No matter what Joseph did, he could not receive the acceptance or respect of his 11 older brothers. Likewise, as an artist Van Gogh failed to win the recognition of the art critics of his day despite his best efforts.
If the 11 stars symbolize Van Gogh's critics, where is Vincent Van Gogh in Starry Night? While open for interpretation, it is possible that Van Gogh identifies himself with the looming cypress tree in the foreground of the painting, a plant that, like daffodils, recurs in several of his paintings, including Wheat Field with Cypresses, also from 1889. The large cypress in Starry Night is the most eye-catching but at the same time ambiguous object in the painting, mostly because of its looming stature. Its dark and almost sinister presence contrasts heavily with the brightly colored stars and luminescent shapes and strokes in the night sky. As Starry Night was painted during a sad period in Van Gogh's life, it would not be surprising that the depressed artist identified with this awkward, almost scary cypress tree, sometimes mistaken as a castle, ziggurat or building of some kind. Van Gogh's art could be aptly symbolized by the strange and off-putting cypress, especially if those who prefer "beautiful" and realistic art are represented by the bright stars in the sky. Is there any other meaning behind these eleven stars?
It's easy to understand how Van Gogh could relate to the story of an outcast and a dreamer who didn't experience a lot of luck early on in life, but there might be more than just religious sentiment in Van Gogh's reference to the Genesis 37 Bible verse. In Genesis 37:9, Joseph in a sense tells his brothers/detractors about his dream to let them know that he believed that one day the tables would turn. Van Gogh also might have intended Starry Night to work as a personal statement concerning his own poor critical reception as an artist. Although we cannot know what Van Gogh originally intended, it may be that the artist referenced Genesis 37:9 in hopes that he too would receive recognition and respect for his work later on, just as Joseph did in the Bible after a difficult early life. Although he died before he could see it for himself, Van Gogh would probably be very pleased with the widespread fame and recognition his art now enjoys today.
It is fitting that, in a strange sense, Starry Night has more meaning today than it did when it was first painted in 1889. There is an oddly prophetic meaning to Starry Night that Van Gogh could never have known to come true. Beyond just the fact that the artist truly did receive respect later on — in Van Gogh's case, posthumously — Starry Night's connection, intended or otherwise, to the concept of the "dream," particularly through the reference to the Genesis 37:9 verse, also seems to foreshadow Surrealists like Salvador Dali who tried to capture what it's like to be dreaming through their art. While Van Gogh died a poor and disrespected artist, he is now one of the most famous and reproduced painters today, as many people have poster reproductions of his art in their homes. More than just a piece of art, Starry Night has also been honored in the song lyrics to "Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)" by Don McLean. Is it just a coincidence that Van Gogh's Starry Night also influenced the dream sequences in DreamWork's animated adaptation of the Joseph story, King of Dreams?