One of the most beloved paintings by Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890) is “The Starry Night” (1889, Oil on canvas). Van Gogh painted this picture from his memory, and from his bedroom window at an asylum in France. Because the trees and the town were derived from van Gogh’s imagination, “The Starry Night” becomes a combination of fantasy and reality with the actual night sky and the fictional Dutch town. Adding to the overall impact of this piece is that van Gogh painted it at night (a difficult feat at best).
As the viewer becomes captivated by the swirling lines of the sky, they silently enter painting into the quiet town below. To keep the viewer engaged, somber blues of the sky and mountains balance the bright oranges of the stars and moon. The dark vertical trees pierce the vibrant sky to ground the scene in the here and now. Meanwhile, rich brush strokes give depth to the scene, allowing the observer to participate in the painting.
By combining the natural shapes of the trees and mountains with the formal shapes of the stars and the buildings, van Gogh creates an incandescent harmony to the piece. The vivid hues of the sky are quieted by the solemn hues of the countryside. To hold the composition together, he uses the Cyprus trees to unite the sky with the town. The result is a numinous invitation to the viewer to embrace nature.
Examine the painting more closely to see how van Gogh achieved his aims. First, his wide curling lines lead the viewer’s eye from star to star until it reaches the crescent moon. Circling the moon, the eye is then directed downwards by the softer curving lines of the mountains. The round lines of the trees give way to the straight lines of the buildings. Finally, these short lines of the town rest the eye from the wild swirling lines of the sky.
The horizontal lines of the town calmly guide the eye to the vertical lines of the gently curving trees. Then these lines lead the observer back to the undulating lines of the sky. This effect draws the observer in and allows them to fully experience the essence of the painting.
The formal shapes of circles dominate the top half of the painting, while the crescent shape of the moon focuses the eye on the right half of the sky. However, these circles are balanced by the rectangles and triangles of the town. The sharp triangle of the steeple pierces the sky to bring the eye down to the town. Softening and melding these geometric shapes are the natural shapes of the mountains and Cyprus trees. Meanwhile, the geometric shapes of the sky and town give structure to the formless trees.