By Elodie Neyens ESMol S4NLA
You may have heard of the famous work: ‘The Starry Night’. It is one of the most famous paintings of the Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh. If you have not heard of the painting yet, you might have heard of ‘that painter who cut off his own ear with a razor’. This is the very same painter — Van Gogh. I didn’t choose this painting randomly. I chose this painting because I believe it resembles the weird and silent times that we are going through today with the Covid-19 virus which is dominating our lives. We may be able to compare the history of ‘The Starry Night’ and how the idea came into Van Gogh’s mind with our strange and surreal moments in lockdown.
Vincent Van Gogh is one of the most famous painters of the 19th century. He spent most of his life trying to make ends meet and was interested in arts from a young age. When he was twenty-seven years old, he finally started art lessons in the ‘Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts’ in Brussels. Even though he had only painted for a decade, he produced a wealth of fascinating works. Yet his artworks were far from popular. This is hard to imagine considering how valuable they are today. He only had been able to sell a handful of works while he was alive. After he died, his younger brother Theo, an art-dealer and principal financial supporter of Vincent, inherited his works.
Luckily Theo was able to sell some of the works and we were never deprived of Vincent’s masterpieces. But unfortunately six weeks after Vincent’s death, Theo died also. In the end, the works ended up in the possession of Theo’s wife who was a widow. She sold ‘The Starry Night’ to a poet who went on to sell it to a string of people. Eventually it arrived in a gallery that later managed to secure a place for the painting in the ‘Museum of Modern Art’ in New York City, USA.
For a period when he was living in France, Van Gogh was confined in a mental asylum in Saint-Remy where he stayed for one year. He struggled with debilitating mental illnesses for much of his life. In 1889, not long after the painting was finished, Van Gogh cut off his own ear.
The idea for ‘The Starry Night’ came to his mind whilst he was looking out the window. Having the idea in his head, he sent a letter to his brother Theo in which he wrote: ‘This morning I saw the countryside from my window of this room in the asylum long before sunrise, with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big’. Though Van Gogh usually worked with observational art; he was not allowed to paint in his room at the asylum. Therefore, he had to memorise the image he saw that morning. That could be a reason why there are all the little lines and stars. In addition to this, he added some elements which were not seen from his window.
Actually, Van Gogh himself believed that the painting was a failure. That’s why he wrote to his brother: ‘All in all the only things I consider a little good are the wheatfield, the mountain, the orchard, the olive trees with the blue hills and the portrait and the entrance to the quarry, and the rest says nothing to me’.
This painting made me think of the changes and unusual experiences we are going through with the virus. ‘The Starry Night’ shows a calm village in nature, even though Van Gogh could not physically be in the space that he painted during his confinement within the mental asylum in Saint-Remy. Similar to Van Gogh in 1889, we have now spent more than one year in the same residence with many restrictions on our activities.
During his confinement, Van Gogh’s mind sought relief in nature again and again. It reminded me of the fact that many of us have rediscovered the beauty of nature around us during lockdowns when we are supposed to stay home. Some have seen empty cities and discovered the beauty of the quiet and slow things in life. This painting also communicates this. It helps me think of the lockdown differently. Not as an unfortunate period, but as potentially beautiful moments. Every situation has its advantages and disadvantages, but maybe I can find a way to focus on the change itself and I could be inclined to be more positive and to experience future situations differently. Thank you, Vincent.