Vincent VAN GOGH | Starry night [La nuit étoilée]

Vincent VAN GOGH
The Netherlands 1853 – France 1890

Starry night
[La nuit étoilée]
oil on canvas
canvas 72.5 (h) x 92.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Gift of Mr and Mrs Robert Kahn-Sriber, in memory of Mr and Mrs Fernand Moch 1975
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Vincent van Gogh’s lyrical interpretation of the night sky at Arles conveys his passion for this southern French town and his delight in the natural world. The ink blue sky littered with glowing stars hangs over the silhouetted city. Gas lighting from buildings along the shoreline of the river Rhône create elongated reflections in the water.

The composition is divided into three distinct sections. In the foreground, an isolated couple walk arm in arm along the water’s edge. Two boats sit moored against a jetty. The water and shoreline fill the midground of the painting and the magnificent sky completes the image. The vastness of this night sky is amplified by the expanse of watery surface which follows the shoreline of the city in an arc.

Colour oppositions pulsate beside one another with an intensity that conveys the atmosphere of this nocturnal scene. The artist’s brushstrokes are applied in many directions to create the textured surface.

Van Gogh arrived at Arles-en- Provence in February 1888 with the intention of establishing a studio for like-minded artists. The artist found the big open skies and countryside a source of great inspiration and lamented to fellow artist Emile Bernard that he wished he had discovered the region earlier.

He used the colour and atmosphere of a night sky as a background to a number of other paintings. The nearby portrait of Eugène Boch includes a simplified version of a night sky. 

It is with this joyous painting of the night sky at Arles that van Gogh reached the perfection that he so yearned to achieve. 

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From audio tour Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay