I paint my dream

I paint my dream

This year is the 130th death anniversary of Vincent Van Gogh, an artist unparalleled, a genius and an enigma. Giridhar Khasnis pays tribute to the Dutch master

Van Gogh

One of the most recognised and reproduced images in the history of art, ‘The Starry Night’ (1889) was painted by Vincent Van Gogh (1853–1890) at the height of his exceptional but relatively short career. With bold brushstrokes accentuating the restless tones of the night sky and pulsating colours defining churning clouds, luminous stars and a bright crescent moon, the apocalyptic composition is the most prominent of Van Gogh’s swirl canvases.

Interestingly, ‘The Starry Night’ was painted while the enigmatic artist was confined to a psychiatric asylum at Saint-Rémy in Southern France and treated for mental illness and an ear amputation. Despite his fragile condition caused by epilepsy and seizures, the Dutch impressionist persuaded the doctor to permit him to paint outdoors. Some of the most celebrated paintings of his career including ‘The Starry Night’ were thus created. Van Gogh worked vigorously during the period applying the paint directly from the tube onto the canvas to create dense impasto textures and penetrating tones.

It now seems obvious that Van Gogh was always enthralled by the mysteries of the night. The dark sky and shining stars provided him with space for meditative reflection and soothing comfort for his mentally disturbed condition. “It often seems to me that the night is much more alive and richly coloured than the day,” he wrote to his brother and confidante Theo. “When I look at the night sky, I see the mysterious brightness of a pale star in the infinite…then life is almost enchanted after all.”

Art historian and curator Joachim Pissarro feels that as an imaginative force, the night was a very big catalyst in Van Gogh’s mind. “Van Gogh lived his life by the night. 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.” For scholars like Pissarro, ‘The Starry Night’ stands out as a truly iconic image — an emblem not only of Van Gogh’s own work, but also of modern art in general.

Search for hope

Unlike his previous works, Van Gogh is said to have created ‘The Starry Night’ from memory and imagination rather than mere observation of reality. Critics feel that the 30-inch x 36-inch canvas painted 13 months before its maker’s death held motifs that symbolised his frame of mind, sense of isolation and a search for hope during a period of great distress. They see ‘The Starry Night’ not just as an image bursting with uncontrollable emotional energy, but also of van Gogh’s struggles and insanity at the time of its creation. Some critics even assign a religious connotation and symbolic subtext to the painting; some others see it as a forewarning of his inevitable and impending sad end.

“The moon comes out of eclipse, the stars blaze and heave, and the cypresses move with them, translating the rhythms of the sky into the black writhings of the flame-like silhouette,” writes eminent art critic Robert Hughes about the painting. Ironically, Van Gogh believed that ‘The Starry Night’ was a failed experiment at abstraction! Even his brother and staunch supporter Theo thought that the painting seemed to prefer style over substance.

The painting’s journey

Van Gogh died on 29 July 1890 in Auvers-sur-Oise, France, aged 37, two days after he had shot himself in the chest. In a short career of about ten years, he had created more than 2,000 artworks, including around 860 oil paintings, most of which date from the last two years of his life. Though his paintings failed to sell, Van Gogh had built a good reputation amongst the avant-garde in his final years; his works were exhibited in several shows in Paris and Brussels. Following his death, Theo tried to raise the profile of his brother’s work; but he too passed away soon, having suffered from an infection of the brain. It was then left to Johanna Van Gogh-Bonger, the 28-year-old widow of Theo, to take up the cause of promoting Van Gogh’s works. She sold some of the paintings and loaned several others for exhibitions. She also chronicled and published the handwritten correspondence between Vincent and Theo, which is considered invaluable for the extraordinary insights it provides about the artist’s life and the ideas he held.

Thanks to her untiring efforts, Van Gogh’s paintings gradually gained popularity and eventually took the art world by storm. Over time, the market for Van Gogh opened up. By 1900, the cost of his painting had risen to around 1,100 francs. About a decade later, one of his still lifes was sold for 32,500 francs; in 1932, another Van Gogh still life was auctioned off for 361,000 francs. There was no looking back thereafter.

The provenance record of ‘The Starry Night’ shows that Johanna sold the painting to a gallery in Rotterdam in 1906. In 1941, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, purchased the painting from french art dealer Paul Rosenberg — it now resides there.  

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