A Brief History
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Swirls of color bring movement to the night sky while an eerie cypress looms in the foreground. A tiny village sits quietly between the hills. This is The Starry Night, easily one of the most famous paintings in the world, by one of the most famous artists of all time, Vincent Van Gogh.
Vincent van Gogh was born in 1853 in a small village in the Netherlands. As the oldest of six children, his stern father and overwhelmed mother sent Vincent to boarding school when he was eight years old. Thus began Vincent’s life-long journey to find a place where he fit in, could feel connected, and find peace.
As a young man, Vincent worked as an art dealer under his uncle’s mentorship where he was first exposed to the business of art. When that career fizzled, van Gogh considered the ministry, like his father. Sent to preach to the lowly peasants, Vincent found he was more intrigued by their craggy faces, than their spiritual growth. Looking for his next path, van Gogh finally turned to art. He enrolled in art school and gathered some practical experience while living with a cousin who was already established as a painter. Ready to commit himself to art, van Gogh relocated to Paris. It was an exciting time to be a painter in Paris where the impressionists were shaking things up with their emphasis on light and color over form and structure. Van Gogh completed many paintings while in Paris, but most of his work was for barter, not sale. Not finding happiness or financial success in Paris, van Gogh moved yet again, this time to the south of France.
The bright sun, vast wheat fields, and sturdy townsfolk of southern France reminded van Gogh of his childhood in Holland. Unfortunately, he did not find a warm welcome in the small villages. The townsfolk were suspicious of van Gogh’s tendency to paint outdoors, even at night. He was the perceived as an impoverished, moody, sometimes combative stranger whose paintings were a radical departure from the popular style of the day. Sadly, van Gogh suffered an emotional breakdown, even severing his own ear with a razor, In an effort to find calm, van Gogh admitted himself to a sanitorium for what became a year-long emotional respite.
In the sanitorium, van Gogh’s ability to paint from observation, as he preferred, was severely limited. So, although “The Starry Night” was inspired by his view of the night sky through the bars of his bedroom window, van Gogh had no choice but to paint it from memory. At the canvas, van Gogh’s memories were transformed into artistic inspiration expressed by thick swirls of paint he freely and spontaneously applied directly from the tube.
Because van Gogh had painted The Starry Night from memory rather than via direct observation, he always regarded the work as a failure. However, time has proven van Gogh’s instincts wrong: The Starry Night is now arguably one of the most famous paintings in the world, and he, is one of the most famous artists of all time,
Through all his struggles, van Gogh was fortunate to be supported by his brother, Theo. Theo was Vincent’s primary benefactor, regularly sending money for paint, supplies, and food. This enabled Vincent to paint hundreds of canvasses in the last two years of his life, even when the commercial art world was all but ignoring his work. Ultimately, van Gogh’s inner torment could not be resolved, and he died by his own hand at the age of 37.