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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The artist's focus on the relationship between dreams and reality—and life and death—had a profound meaning for him, as he had confided to Theo in a letter a year before his first crisis in Arles. "Looking at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots representing towns and villages on a map. Why, I ask myself, shouldn't the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France? Just as we take the train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star."

His interest in mixing dreams and reality, observation and imagination, is particularly evident in the night paintings he made in Arles and Saint-Rémy in 1889 and 1890, in which he not only conquered the difficulties of using color to depict darkness but also went a long way toward capturing the spiritual and symbolic meanings that he saw in the night.

"He lived at night," says Pissarro. "He didn't sleep until three or four in the morning. He wrote, read, drank, went to see friends, spent entire nights in cafés ...or meditated over the very rich associations that he saw in the night. It was during the night hours that his experiments with imagination and memory went the farthest."

Van Gogh told Theo that in depicting the interior of a night café, where he had slept among the night prowlers of Arles, "I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green." He stayed up three consecutive nights to paint the "rotten joint," he said. "Everywhere there is a clash and contrast of the most disparate reds and greens in the figures of little sleeping hooligans, in the empty, dreary room...the blood-red and the yellow-green of the billiard table."

Van Gogh considered it one of the ugliest paintings he'd made, but also one of the most "real." His first painting of the starry sky, The Starry Night over the Rhône (1888), was another exercise in contrasting complementary colors (pairs chosen to heighten each other's impact). This time, the effect of the painting, with its greenish blue sky, violet-hued town and yellow gas­light, was more romantic. He wrote Wil that he had painted it "at night under a gas jet."

Van Gogh considered his now-iconic The Starry Night, which he painted from his barred window at Saint-Rémy, a failed attempt at abstraction. Before leaving Saint-Rémy, he wrote to Émile Bernard: "I have been slaving away on nature the whole year, hardly thinking of impressionism or of this, that and the other. And yet, once again I let myself go reaching for stars that are too big—a new failure—and I have had enough of it."

Theo liked the painting but was worried. He wrote Vincent that "the expression of your thoughts on nature and living creatures shows how strongly you are attached to them. But how your brain must have labored, and how you have risked everything...." Vincent didn't live to know that in his reaching for the stars, he had created a masterpiece.

New Mexico-based painter and printmaker Paul Trachtman wrote about new figurative painters in the October 2007 issue.


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