Mark Harden's Artchive VAN GOGH, Vincent
The Starry Night
1889
Oil on canvas
29 x 36 1/4 in.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York

From J. van der Wolk, "Vincent Van Gogh: Paintings and Drawings":

'The Starry Night' was not Van Gogh's first depiction of a night sky. In Arles, he had been proud of his painting of the stars and the reflection of the lights of the town in the River Rhône, one of the first results of a plan intimated to Emile Bernard in April 1888. He wanted to paint a starry night as an example of working from the imagination, which could add to the value of a painting: 'we may succeed in creating a more exciting and comforting nature than we can discern with a single glimpse of reality', he wrote. In a letter to Theo of the same date, Vincent was more explicit about the motif: 'a starry night with cypresses or possibly above a field of ripe wheat'. With his 'Starry Night', painted in Saint-Rémy, he fulfilled that promise and did so at a time when he was more determined than ever to prove himself the equal of his fellow artists.

...

Van Gogh also mentioned as a joint aim 'a kind of painting giving greater consolation'. This supremely religious aspiration was no longer related to the Christian ethic for Van Gogh. His insistence that the canvases were not a return 'to romanticism or to religious ideas', though somewhat puzzling at first, was intended only to show that the works had nothing in common with earlier mystic paintings. He had once admired religious subjects from ancient art, but he now considered that the feeling of solace should primarily be evoked by the colour and design of representations of nature. [...]'The Starry Night' should be seen as [...] based on religious ideas only in this specific sense.

The artistic solution chosen by Van Gogh for these canvases lay in a compelling form of stylisation. The landscape with hills - in which he had attempted 'to render the time of day when you see the green beetles and cicadas fly up in the heat' and 'The Starry Night' were, he wrote later, 'exaggerations in terms of composition' with lines 'warped as in old woodcuts'. Van Gogh was referring to the somewhat primitive, coarse illustrations in the household edition of the works of Dickens rather than to the carefully executed wood engravings in contemporary magazines. in the drawings which he also made after these paintings, this abstraction has been taken a step further.

'The Starry Night' in particular was an attempt by Van Gogh to create a masterpiece on a par with the very stylised work of Gauguin and Bernard. The graphic style adopted by Van Gogh was not an obvious choice to achieve a nocturnal effect in which surfaces and silhouettes would normally play a greater role than lines. The style is in this sense rather artificial, and the same can be said of the scene itself, put together as it is from different studies from nature.

[...]

Van Gogh may have had doubts about the painting, but subsequent commentators have elevated 'The Starry Night' to a place among his most exceptional and important works. The combination of style and religious overtones has fuelled endless critical debate. Several authors have investigated the extent to which Van Gogh's night sky is true to life, but the science of astronomy has failed to produce an unambiguous answer. In the light of Van Gogh's opinions this is hardly surprising: he was permitting himself the artistic freedom which Bernard and Gauguin also exploited.