Van Gogh’s Night Visions

For Vincent Van Gogh, fantasy and reality merged after dark in some of his most enduring paintings, as a new exhibition reminds us

Van Gogh painted his iconic The Starry Night in 1889, while in an asylum in Saint-Rémy. "One of the most beautiful things by the painters of this century," he had written to Theo in April 1885, "has been the painting of Darkness that is still COLOR." (The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest / Photo John Wronn)
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By the early 1880s, Theo, who was four years younger than Vincent, was finding success as a Paris art dealer and had begun supporting his brother with a monthly stipend. Vincent sent Theo his astonishing canvases, but Theo couldn't sell them. In the spring of 1889 after receiving a shipment of paintings that included the now-famous Sunflowers, the younger brother tried to reassure the elder: "When we see that the Pissarros, the Gauguins, the Renoirs, the Guillaumins do not sell, one ought to be almost glad of not having the public's favor, seeing that those who have it now will not have it for­ever, and it is quite possible that times will change very shortly." But time was running out.

Growing up in the Brabant, the southern region of the Netherlands, Vincent had absorbed the dark palette of great Dutch painters such as Frans Hals and Rembrandt. As an art student in Antwerp, he had the opportunity to visit museums, see the work of his contemporaries and frequent cafés and performances. In March 1886, he went to join Theo in Paris. There, having encountered young painters like Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin and Signac, as well as older artists such as Pissarro, Degas and Monet, he adopted the brighter colors of modern art. But with his move to Arles, in the south of France, in February 1888, the expressive force he'd been searching for at last erupted. Alone in the sun-drenched fields and gaslit night cafés of Arles, he found his own palette of bright yellows and somber blues, gay geranium oranges and soft lilacs. His skies became yellow, pink and green, with violet stripes. He painted feverishly, "quick as lightning," he boasted. And then, just as he achieved a new mastery over brush and pigment, he lost control of his life. In a fit of hallucinations and anguish in December 1888, he severed part of his ear and delivered it to a prostitute at a local brothel.

Gauguin, who had come to Arles to paint with him, fled to Paris, and van Gogh, after his neighbors petitioned the police, was locked up in a hospital. From then on, the fits recurred unpredictably, and he spent most of the last two years of his life in asylums, first in Arles and then in Saint-Rémy, painting what he could see through the bars of his window or from the surrounding gardens and fields. "Life passes like this," he wrote to Theo from Saint-Rémy in September 1889, "time does not return, but I am dead set on my work, for just this very reason, that I know the opportunities of working do not return. Especially in my case, in which a more violent attack may forever destroy my power to paint."

When the attacks seemed to subside in May 1890, van Gogh left Saint-Rémy for Auvers-sur-Oise, a small village near Paris where Dr. Paul Gachet, a local physician and friend to many painters, agreed to care for him. But van Gogh's paintings proved more successful than the doctor's treatments. Among the artist's last efforts was the tumultuous Wheatfield with Crows, in which dark and light, near and far, joy and anguish, all seem bound together in a frenzy of paint that can only be called apocalyptic. Van Gogh shot himself soon after painting it and died two days later. He was buried in a graveyard next to the field.

Theo had been at Vincent's side as the artist died and, according to Bernard, left the graveyard at Auvers "broken by grief." He never recovered. He barely had time to present a show of Vincent's paintings in his Paris apartment. Six months later he, too, died—out of his mind and incoherent in a clinic in Holland, where he had been taken by his wife because of his increasingly violent outbursts. (One theory holds that both Theo and Vincent, and probably their sister Wil, all suffered from an inherited metabolic disorder that caused their similar physical and mental symptoms.) He now lies buried next to his brother in Auvers.

Against the backdrop of this poignant biography, the new exhibition of van Gogh's night pictures at MoMA takes on added significance. For it was to the night sky, and to the stars, that van Gogh often looked for solace. The problems of painting night scenes on the spot held more than a technical interest and challenge for him. When he looked at the night sky, he wrote to Theo in August 1888, he saw "the mysterious brightness of a pale star in the infinite." When you are well, he went on, "you must be able to live on a piece of bread while you are working all day, and have enough strength to smoke and drink your glass in the evening....And all the same to feel the stars and the infinite high and clear above you. Then life is almost enchanted after all."

Van Gogh saw the night as a period of reflection and meditation after a day of activity, says MoMA curatorial assistant Jennifer Field, one of the organizers of the exhibition. "It was also this kind of metaphor for the cycle of life. And he linked this with the changing of the seasons."

In Arles, in 1888 and 1889, van Gogh's paintings took on a mystical, dreamlike quality. Straight lines became wavy, colors intensified, thick paint became thicker, sometimes squeezed straight onto the canvas from the tube. Some of these changes were later taken as a sign of his madness, and even van Gogh feared that "some of my pictures certainly show traces of having been painted by a sick man." But there was premeditation and technique behind these distortions, as he tried to put a sense of life's mysteries into paint. In a letter to Wil, he explained that "the bizarre lines, purposely selected and multiplied, meandering all through the picture, may fail to give the garden a vulgar resemblance, but may present it to our minds as seen in a dream, depicting its character, and at the same time stranger than it is in reality."


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