The Starry Night is an oil-on-canvas painting that was created in June 1889 by Vincent van Gogh. The painting was conceptualized during the time when van Gogh was admitted to the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole lunatic asylum, and it was just one of many artworks that the painter created in his stay at the said location. Most of the paintings that van Gogh was able to produce at the asylum were based on the beautiful scenery that he would often admire whenever he takes a look at it from his bedroom window. The Starry Night is considered to be van Gogh’s most popular painting, mainly due to his incredible use of colors to create the beautiful night sky depicted in the painting. To know more about how the painting came to be and what inspired van Gogh to paint it, let us take a look at the interesting origins of The Starry Night.
Vincent van Gogh admitted himself at Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, a lunatic asylum at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in France, on May 8, 1889, a few months after the painter suffered a mental breakdown that resulted in him cutting his left ear off. When he visited the asylum, there were only a few patients staying there, so van Gogh was able to choose two rooms, with one on the second floor serving as his bedroom while the other on the ground floor being his studio for painting. It was during van Gogh’s stay at the asylum that he was able to produce some of his most notable works, such as his self-portrait in September 1889, Irises, and The Starry Night.
It is important to note that van Gogh was not allowed to paint at his second-floor bedroom, but the scenery seen in The Starry Night can only be viewed on the second floor. To have an accurate painting of the scenery, van Gogh would first draw the view using charcoal and a piece of paper (two of the items that he was allowed to carry in his bedroom), and then he would copy whatever is on the sketch to his painting that he will be working on the ground floor studio.
Before creating The Starry Night, van Gogh had used the wonderful scenery of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence seen in his second-floor window in other paintings and sketches, such as the Mountainous Landscape Behind Saint-Rémy and The Enclosed Wheatfield After a Storm. A distinct area or element seen in most of the landscape paintings created by van Gogh was the rolling hills of the Chaîne des Alpilles, a range of low mountains in Provence, France. The hills were often seen to the far right of the paintings.
Interestingly, the only nocturne or nighttime painting that van Gogh created based on the scenery was The Starry Night. It is believed that van Gogh was moved or inspired to do the painting when he saw the “morning star,” which was shining brightly and magnificently when he once woke up earlier than usual. Historians and scientific researchers backed up the claim that van Gogh saw the “morning star” or the planet Venus by stating that the second planet closest to the Sun was actually visible during the spring season of 1889. So, the brightest star in the painting (located to the right of the tall cypress tree), which is emphasized by the overwhelming amount of white paint surrounding it, was Venus.
Besides the morning star, the crescent moon was also a debated subject in the painting for many years, as many astronomers believed that the moon was in its “waning gibbous” phase instead of being crescent when van Gogh saw the scenery. There is currently no accurate answer as to why van Gogh opted to paint a crescent moon instead of a waning gibbous moon, but many art interpreters believe that the phase of the moon has symbolism in van Gogh’s life. According to these interpreters, the crescent moon symbolizes “consolation,” or being able to find comfort, possibly inside the lunatic asylum. On the other hand, some experts believed that van Gogh only painted a crescent moon because it was the traditional or most common way of painting it during that time.
Vincent van Gogh elected to keep the painting at first, but he eventually sent The Starry Night, along with nine or ten other paintings, to his brother Theo on September 28, 1889, a few months before he was released from the lunatic asylum. When Vincent van Gogh died in July 1890, Theo became heartbroken, and as a result, his health began to decline. He eventually suffered from dementia paralytica, a severe infection of the brain, and the illness became the cause of his death on January 25, 1891, just six months after the passing of his dear brother. Theo’s wife, Jo, then became the inheritor of Vincent’s paintings, as well as Theo’s fortunes. Jo sold The Starry Night to French poet Julien Leclercq in 1900, who then sold it to ÉmileSchuffenecker, one of the first collectors of van Gogh’s paintings, in the same year.
In 1901, Jo van Gogh bought The Starry Night back from Schuffenecker, and after five years, Jo sold the painting again, but this time to the Oldenzeel Gallery in 1906. For 32 years, the painting was owned by an art collector named Georgette P. van Stolk, who eventually sold the painting to famous art dealer Paul Rosenberg in 1938. The painting was moved from Paris to New York and began to be displayed at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1941. The MoMA still owns the painting to this day.