Poetry of the night: The starry night over the Rhône

In 1888 Van Gogh had written several letters about his longing to paint a starry night, as this fragment shows:

At present I absolutely want to paint a starry sky. It often seems to me that night is still more richly coloured than the day; having hues of the most intense violets, blues and greens.

But the problem was that while Van Gogh could best observe the starry sky by being in the open air, it was difficult to paint on the spot in the dark.

Direct observation
The constellation of the Great Bear (Big Dipper) from 'The starry night over the Rhône' is marked with a red lineFortunately the street lanterns along the water's edge of the Rhône shed enough light to enable Van Gogh to paint from direct observation. Even so, Van Gogh manipulated reality to a certain degree in order to create an even more impressive firmament. From his point of view the town of Arles lay to the south west; the constellation of the Great Bear (Big Dipper) that he painted in the sky was actually in the north - behind him.

Night: romance
For Van Gogh, the twilight and the night evoked poetic feelings and philosophical and religious meditations: the night prompted reflection and creativity, the night offered hope and solace. The starry night over the Rhône, with Arles insignificant under an imposing starry sky, serves as an expression of the splendour Van Gogh felt when he painted it. He bolstered the romantic import of the work by situating a courting couple in the foreground.

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), The starry night over the Rhône, 1888, Musée d’Orsay, Paris

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