Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night: Symbolism and Iconography

Updated on February 21, 2018
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Vincent van Gogh (30 March 1853 – 29 July 1890) painted Starry Night in 1889, one year before his death. The painting depicts a phase of his life where he was in need for realism that has become the driving force in his life and work. He became disillusioned with organized religion and adopted instead the scientific method in his pursuit of truth (Boime, 1984). Nevertheless, some critics maintain that Starry Night abounds in religious symbolism, whereas others dismiss such interpretations. Van Gogh wrote to his brother that Starry Night did not signal “a return to romantic or religious ideas”, but that it is a form of expression of “the purer nature of a countryside compared with the suburbs and cabarets of Paris”. Nevertheless, it is still contended that the painting represents many religious themes such as the Biblical Agony in the Garden, and Joseph, the favorite son of Jacob who endures fraternal betrayal (O’Brien, 2007).

On the other hand, Starry Night is considered to be an iconography or as van Gogh called it a “poetic subject” that translates the themes in the poems of Walt Whitman, an American author whose works van Gogh read avidly and therefore had a big influence on his perception of nature. In his praise for Whitman van Gogh said in a letter to his sister when he was preoccupied with his night scenes in September – October 1888:

“Have you read the American poems by Whitman? I am sure Theo (his brother) has them, and I strongly advise you to read them, because to begin with they are really fine, and the English speak of them a good deal. He sees in the future, and even in the present, a world of healthy, carnal love, strong and frank-of friendship-of work-under the great starlit vault of heaven something which after all one can only call God-and eternity in its place above this world” (Schwind, 1985).

His readings of Whitman had incited his fascination with the celestial pageant, astronomy and with scientific reasoning, which he considered to be an ‘instrument with a great future’ (Boime, 1984). He had established at that time a deep connection with nature, which inspired him to decant his thoughts and emotions on the canvas. Nevertheless, it is contended that an attitude as such should not be construed as atheistic, because van Gogh’s existential meaning of being was connected to something greater (Hong, 2007). In the next paragraphs we will see some manifestations of religious and literary themes in van Gogh’s Starry Night.

Van Gogh was opposed to paintings with canonical references. He contended that with him “there is no question of doing anything from the bible” (Boime, 1984). Additionally, he criticized repeatedly in his letters to his friends Emile Bernard and Paul Gaugin their excessive religious paintings and considered these to be “rapes of nature”. For instance, he leveled criticism at Gauguin’s portrayal of himself as Jesus in his “Agony in the Garden”. In Bernard’s “Garden”, Gaugin is recast as Judas. Van Gogh suggested instead that Christ’s Agony in the Garden can be expressed “without aiming straight at the historic Garden of Gethsemane”. It is argued that the way van Gogh was depicting two separate landscapes in his letter revealed a connection between “Starry Night” and Bernard’s “Christ in the Garden” as representations of personal anguish (Schwind, 1985).

As a matter of fact, one of the influential painters on Van Gogh’s works, Delacroix, had used citron-yellow to define the figure of Christ; a color van Gogh used later for stars (Soth, 1986), which refers to a spiritual association; an association that represents Agony in the Garden where Jesus faced the reality of coming to crucifixion, compared to van Gogh’s reality where he was dealing with his religious struggles. Van Gogh’s inability to paint Agony in the Garden is therefore a reflection of his agony when he was painting Starry Night.

Whereas some have interpreted Starry Night as a representation of the biblical story of Joseph’s dream, of his fraternal betrayal where the sun, where the moon and eleven stars made obeisance to him, others have contended that the moon and the stars symbolize Jesus and his apostles. However, if the painting was a representation of Christianity the church would not be placed in a position where it is overwhelmed by a Cypress (Hong, 2007). Other scholars, such as Meyer Schapiro argued that there is a possibility that the painting could be an unconscious reference to the passage in Revelation which describes a vision of a woman “robed with the sun, beneath her feet the moon, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (Soth, 1986).

As mentioned earlier van Gogh’s reading of Whitman’s poetry drew his attention to the magnificence of the stars. Hence, in the Starry Night, he was trying to imagine divine love and the majesty and supremacy of the universe. It is clear on the painting that there is reference to man’s temporal and terrestrial existence which is then juxtaposed with the infinite nature underlying cosmic time. In stars, van Gogh found hope and comfort. They have also given him a source of inspiration; hence van Gogh observed that looking at stars always makes him dream.

There is a great similarity between the beliefs of Whitman and van Gogh although they have never met. They both loved nature and enjoyed its beauty. In addition, they both found evidence in the world around them of the divine (Werness, 1985).

Many poems by whitman are considered to be a source of inspiration to van Gogh’s Starry Night. Among these we find "Songs to myself" which provides enough information that indicate indicate the influence on Van Gogh’s painting. Other sources suggest that there are countless influences or satire for painting Starry Night. Van Gogh's main inspiration was Whitman’s doctrine whereby he postulated that there are two universal domains that exist together. For example, feminine characteristics are identified through the word “bare-bosom’d” and “nourishing” which mingle with the earth’s masculine characteristics of “liquid trees” and “mountains. Van Gogh illustrates Whitman’s “bare-bosom’d night” using the rounded hills that are painted with the color of the vast blue sky looking upon the town. Objects such as the Cypress and the steeple probably connote masculine objects, whereas the moon, stars, and blue sky refer to feminine qualities.

© 2015 Salah El Harch

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