It is one of the maybe ten most famous works of art in the world. It is on everything from towels, notebooks to water bottles. It is one of the ten things that I always recommend to people to do when they come to New York City, see The Starry Night. But this treasure of the world, like many works of art, was not that highly regarded by the artist who painted it.
A little background first. On December 23, 1888, Van Gogh suffered a breakdown that resulted in the cutting of his own ear. He checked into a lunatic asylum that was for the wealthy, Saint-Paul-de-Mausole. The stay lasted a year, in which some of his best-known works were made, The Starry Night, painted around mid-June of 1889, was his view outside his bedroom window at the asylum.
You might think that he was up at night looking at the night sky as he painted the view he saw, but that would not be true. Instead, it was painted during the day and not from his bedroom window but from a different room that was used as his studio. And it would be also untrue to say that he painted it from memory as the view of his bedroom window was not the view in the painting. Instead, it seems that the painting is a collection of different views of the surrounding area of the asylum. How do we know that the painting doesn’t show his view? The village in the painting could not be seen from the window. The Starry Night was also not unique in its subject as Van Gogh painted the view from his bedroom window at least 21 times, each with different times of the day and under different weather conditions. The Starry Night was the only one with a night view of the 21 paintings.
As to how he felt about the painting, in a letter to his brother, Theo, of paintings he was sending him he wrote, “All in all the only things I consider a little good in it 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”. The rest that he is talking about includes The Starry Night. In another letter, this time to painter Emile Bernard, in November 1889 Van Gogh said the painting was a “failure”.
A failure! One of the most important works of art, seen by millions each year, and Van Gogh thought it sucked. It makes me think, how would he feel if he knew that his “failure” is what we remember him for the most, besides that whole ear cutting off thing. I’m sure he would be surprised by that.
So how did a painting that the artist didn’t fully care for become so famous? Well, that’s a more personal question that needs to be asked of those, like myself, who admire it so much. It doesn’t have an interesting background nor does a show a new artform. Instead for me, it moves my mind and my heart. The patterns of twists and turns of the paintbrush take me to a night that I have often seen in my dreams. It reminds me of nights when I was younger. The moon is out and the wind is blowing trees while a city of night shines under the moonlight. It just draws me in, every detail seeming to be just perfect. Art is very subjective, and the meanings of why some art does and doesn’t capture you can be very personal. There have been popular works that I do not care for, I’m looking at you Mona Lisa, and others like The Starry Night that speak right into my soul.
We can all relate to how Van Gogh felt, especially if you deal in any form of art. But even if you are not an artist, we all reject what we do as not our best and others will be drawn into it. I know as a photographer I have often questioned if a shot was worth my time just to have others be amazed by what I captured. Writers, cooks, painters, and even people who are parents share in this universal feeling. Is our best good enough? Much like The Starry Night, the answer is yes.
If you happen to be in New York City, you can visit The Starry Night at the Museum of Modern Art, where it has been since 1941. Any lover of art should take the time to make the trip.