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Van Gogh’s Agony
Author(s): Lauren Soth
Source: The Art Bulletin, Vol. 68, No. 2 (Jun., 1986), pp. 301-313
Published by: College Art Association
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Van Gogh’s Agony
Lauren Soth
Analysis of the conceptual and circumstantial history of Van Gogh’s Starry Night
of 1889 (Museum of Modern Art) and explication of the letter he wrote upon its
completion show that it was intended as an image of consolation. Further argument interprets it as a sublimated version of the Agony in the Garden, a subject
he tried and failed to paint the year before.
The visionary nature of Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night
has always been recognized (Fig. 1).1 Perhaps the assumption that the painting was the result of a private mystical
experience has prevented scholars from examining it in detail, though there are exceptions, particularly Sven Loevgren.2 But images of visions are as amenable to analysis as
any other images. Here I shall discuss the Starry Night in
light of its conceptual history: when it came into Van Gogh’s
mind and how his ideas about it developed; its circumstantial history: when and where it was done and what its
sources were; and what Van Gogh wrote about it. Finally,
I shall argue that the Starry Night is a religious picture, a
sublimation of impulses that, since Van Gogh’s loss of faith
in the Church, could not find their outlet in conventional
Christian imagery. Specifically, I believe it is related to the
Agony in the Garden, the biblical episode that had a profound, lifelong significance for him.
a more exalting and consoling nature than the single brief
glance at reality – which in our sight is ever changing,
passing like a flash of lightning – can let us perceive.
A starry sky, for instance – look that is something I
should like to try to do.4
This excerpt shows that Van Gogh already thought a
starry night a suitable subject for a painting that would,
through the use of the imagination, be something more than
a realistic depiction of nature. Not only would such a painting be exalted beyond reality, but it would be consoling as
well. These two concepts – imaginative exaltation and
consolation–are, as will be seen, basic to an understanding
of the Starry Night.
A painting of a starry night was still on Van Gogh’s mind
in June when he again wrote Bernard:
The Conceptual History of the Starry Night
The thought of painting a starry night preoccupied Van
Gogh in Arles during the spring and summer of 1888. He
first expressed it in two letters, both written on April 9. To
his brother Theo he wrote, “I must also have a starry night
with cypresses.”3 To his friend Emile Bernard he wrote:
I won’t hide from you that I don’t dislike the country,
as I have been brought up there – I am still charmed
by the magic of hosts of memories of the past, of a longing for the infinite, of which the sower, the sheaf are the
symbols – just as much as before. But when shall I paint
my starry sky, that picture which preoccupies me
continuously?”
The imagination is certainly a faculty which we must
develop, one which alone can lead us to the creation of
Finally, on September 9, he declared in a letter to his
sister Wilhelmina that “at present I absolutely want to paint
I first suggested that the Starry Night was related to The Agony in the
Garden in a paper called “Van Gogh’s Symbolic Landscapes” read at the
Netherlandish Art Symposium at Memphis State University on April 24,
1982. A much condensed version of this article was presented at the annual
meeting of the College Art Association in Toronto, February 25, 1984. In
April, 1984, in the Van Gogh Museum library Sophie Pabst showed me
a copy of Griselda Pollock’s thesis of 1981 on Van Gogh and Dutch art
for the Courtauld Institute, and I discovered that she had reached
conclusions about the Starry Night similar to mine, although our
arguments followed quite different courses. For their help I would like to
thank H. van Crimpen, Sophie Pabst, Lili Couvee-Jampoller, Carol Zemel,
Johannes van der Wolk, Evert van Uitert, Vojtech Jirat-Wasiutyfiski,
Hollister Sturges, Jeffrey Howe, Alison Kettering, Alan Birnholz, Sarah
Faunce, Robert Mathews, Richard Spear, Miles Chappell, Albert Albano,
and Joel Weisberg. I am also indebted to Carleton College for the award
of a Bush Fellowship in support of my research.
the Starry Night was realistic, that Van Gogh painted the night sky as he
saw it. The precariousness of such realistic interpretations is shown by
the mutually exclusive constellations each scholar claims to find in the
Starry Night: Boime identifies Aries, Whitney identifies Cygnus. See Albert
Boime, “Van Gogh’s Starry Night: A History of Matter and a Matter of
History,” Arts, LIX,December, 1984, 86-103. I am grateful to Charles
Whitney for allowing me to read his unpublished manuscript and for his
generosity in discussing Van Gogh’s painting with me.
2 S. Loevgren, The Genesis of Modernism, Bloomington and London,
1 Recently Albert Boime, an art historian, and Charles Whitney, an
astronomer, have independently broken with this view and argued that
1971, 172-191.
3Letters, No. 474, II, 541 (April 9, 1888).
4 Ibid., B3, III, 478 (April 9, 1888). A few weeks earlier, Van Gogh had
found in De Maupassant’s Pierre et Jean a literary parallel to the idea he
expressed to Bernard. He referred Theo to De Maupassant’s preface,
“where he explains the artist’s liberty to exaggerate, to create in his novel,
a world more beautiful, more simple, more consoling than ours” (ibid.,
No. 470, ii, 534 [March 18, 1888]).
s Letters, B7, III, 492 (ca. June 18, 1888).
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302
THE ART BULLETIN JUNE 1986 VOLUME LXVIII NUMBER 2
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a starry sky.”66
Shortly thereafter Van Gogh did paint two pictures of
starry nights. But they did not match the conception in his
imagination, and it was not until the following summer that
he realized it with the masterpiece now in the Museum of
Modern Art.
Why did not the Caf6 Terraceat Night (Fig. 2) and the
Starry Night Over the Rhone (Fig. 3), the two paintings of
September, 1888, fulfill Van Gogh’s vision of a starry night?
The excerpts just quoted make two things clear: that Vincent conceived the ideal starry night as being over a landscape, not a town; and that he conceived it as an imaginative work, not a descriptive one. The Caf6 Terrace at
Night and the Starry Night Over the Rhone are town views,
not landscapes, and the town – Arles – is rendered in a
6
Ibid., W7, III, 443.
7 Ibid., W7, III, 444 (the letter was begun on September 9 and finished
descriptively realistic manner. This is true not only of the
appearance of both paintings but of Vincent’s written comments on them. His account of the Caf? Terraceat Night
to his sister simply describes the scene and the colors. There
is no suggestion of further meaning. Van Gogh even draws
a parallel with the literary naturalism of Guy de Maupassant’s novel Bel ami: “the beginning of Bel ami happens to
be a description of a starlit night in Paris with the brightly
lit cafes of the Boulevard, and this is approximately the
same subject I just painted.”7
His two descriptions, to Theo and to Eugene Boch, of
the Starry Night Over the Rhone are similarly restricted to
the identification of motifs and colors.8 And, in the very
same letter to Theo in which he described it, Vincent acknowledged that the Starry Night Over the Rhone was not
on September 16, 1888).
Ibid., No. 543, III, 56 (ca. September 28, 1888) and No. 553b, III, 84
(October 2, 1888).
8
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VAN GOGHIS AGONY
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2 Van Gogh, Caf? Terraceat Night, 1888. Otterlo, Rijksmuseum Kr6ller-Miiller
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3 Van Gogh, StarryNight Over the Rhone, 1888. Paris,Mused
d’Orsay
9 Ibid., 543, III, 59. “The same plowed field” is a reference to Plowed
Fields (F574), Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam.
10
Ibid., No. 594, III, 179 (ca. June 9, 1889).
11Ibid., W12, II, 453 (June 16, 1889).
303
what he had been dreaming of, for he went on to say: “As
for the ‘Starry Sky,’ I’d still like very much to paint it, and
perhaps one of these nights I shall be in the same plowed
field if the sky is sparkling.”9
Nine months later, Van Gogh fulfilled that ambition. In
St.-R6my he painted a Starry Night over a landscape that
was an imaginative vision (Fig. 1). How that vision, which
had preoccupied him for over a year, took pictorial form
can be understood from a discussion of the circumstances
of its creation.
The Circumstantial History of the Starry Night
On May 8, 1889, Van Gogh entered the hospital of St.Paul-de-Mausole at St.-Remy. For several weeks he did not
leave the hospital, painting or sketching only in its garden
or from his cell window. Figure 4 is one of the paintings
he did then from that window.10 Comparison with a photograph taken in the 1950’s of the same view (Fig. 5) shows
that Van Gogh portrayed the enclosed field beneath his cell
and the landscape beyond its wall in a straightforwardway,
exaggerating only the steepness of the Alpilles mountains
on the horizon.
In early June Van Gogh began working in the country
around the hospital and shortly thereafter he painted the
Starry Night. It can be dated almost to the day. In a letter
to his sister that JanHulsker has dated to June 16, Van Gogh
described the paintings he had just finished: the Starry Night
is not among them.” A day or two later, he wrote Theo
that he had “a new study of a starry sky.”12The Starry
Night was therefore painted between June 16 and 18, 1889.
The mountains in the Starry Night are the same Alpilles
that Van Gogh could see from his cell window. Their steepness is exaggerated, just as in the earlier, otherwise realistic,
painting (Fig. 4). Thus the history of the Starry Night as distinct from the conceptual history of a starry night,
which goes back to the spring of 1888 – begins with Van
Gogh looking through the iron bars of his cell in the hospital at St.-Remy.
From that base in observed reality, Van Gogh’s imagination took hold. But it was fed by sources in both nature
and art. Examination of them helps clarify his method and
the meaning of the Starry Night.
Beneath his actual cell was an enclosed field, but in the
painting Van Gogh depicted cypresses and a village. These
came from his immediate visual experience as recorded in
the quick sketches, recto and verso, of an ordinary sheet
of drawing paper, illustrated in Figures 6 and 7. The latter
is, in fact, a view of St.-R~my, as comparison with the old
postcard in Figure8 shows.13The point at which Van Gogh
sketched the town is just a few steps outside the southwest
entrance to St.-Paul-de-Mausole. The site of the scene in
Ibid., No. 595, I11, 182 (June 17 or 18, 1889).
13This comparison was first made Jean-Paul
by
Cl6bertand PierreRichard,
La Provence de van Gogh, Aix-en-Provence, 1981, 54. I am grateful to
Pierre Richard for providing me with the postcard used in Figure 9.
12
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304
THEARTBULLETIN
JUNE1986 VOLUMELXVIIINUMBER2
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6 Van Gogh, Landscape with Cypresses (recto of Fig. 7), 1889.
Amsterdam,RijksmuseumVincentvan Gogh, Inv. No. F1541
4 Van Gogh, Mountainous Landscape Behind St. Paul’s Hospi-
tal, 1889. Copenhagen,Ny CarlsbergGlyptotek
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the recto (Fig. 6) is undoubtedly not much farther away,
in the foothills just south of the hospital.
Struck by these motifs of the actual landscape, Van Gogh
set them down on paper. Evidently they still haunted him
when he painted the Starry Night, since they ended up together on the canvas. In the passage from sketched observation to painted image, one significant transformation
took place: the form of the church was changed.’4
St. Martin, the church in St.-Remy, has a dome that Van
Gogh clearly indicates in his drawing (Fig. 7). The church
in the Starry Night is not domed; it has a long nave and
transept with steeply pitched roofs. With its tall spire, it is
a type of church rare in Provence but common in the north
and especially common in Brabant, Van Gogh’s homeland.
When he was living there, in Etten, in July, 1878, he drew
a map of the neighborhood in which he included sketches
7
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8 View of St.-Remy,postcardca. 1910
“4 The 1970 edition of De la Faille’s catalogue is mistaken in claiming in
the entry for the Starry Night (F612) that the same church is represented
in painting and drawing.
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Aw
VAN GOGH’S AGONY
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9 Van Gogh, Etten and Its Environs, 1878, pen sketch. Amster-
dam, RijksmuseumVincentvan Gogh
of four similar churches (Fig. 9).15They were for him the
most significant landmarks, the most meaningful features
of the area.
The cypresses and the village seen from above in the
Starry Night had their genesis in local visual experience.
But, in the act of painting, the actual church of St.-Remy
was forgotten and replaced by the archetypal church from
Van Gogh’s memory of Brabant.
Letters, No. 123,
I, 173, (July 22, 1878).
Ibid., No. 27, I, 27 (May 31, 1875). Van Gogh then quoted the last
stanza of Breton’s poem Le Saint-Jean from Les Champs et la Mer.
15
16
17 It was
probably also significant for Van Gogh that the painting depicted
not an ordinary day but a special one. In northern European countries,
St. John’s Eve (June 23) had become identified with Midsummer’s Eve.
Thus Breton’s painting would have carried allusions to the passage of the
seasons and the cycle of nature.
18Another engraving of the painting was published in the Salon issue of
L’illustrationof April 30, 1887. Both journals use the title La fin du travail,
as does Marius Vachon in Jules Breton, Paris, 1899, illustration opposite
p. 37 (see also p. 92). Hollister Sturges, Jules Breton and the French Rural
Tradition, Omaha, 1983, 99, claims that Vachon confused the two
paintings Breton exhibited in the Salon of 1887: La fin du travail, and A
travers les champs. He calls a Breton painting now in the Brooklyn
305
The image of a church and village in the landscape, combined with a crescent moon, had another source: the paintings of Jules Breton, whom Van Gogh had long admired.
On May 31, 1875, he wrote Theo a description of Breton’s
Festival of Saint John (Fig. 10): “He has a beautiful picture
at the Salon, ‘St. John’s Eve.’ Peasant girls dancing on a
summer evening around a St. John’s fire; in the background, the village with a church and the moon over it.”’16
The specific mention of village, church, and moon shows
that these details had an impact on Van Gogh.17They appear again in a painting (now lost) that Breton exhibited
in the Salon in 1887. Van Gogh could have seen it there
while he was living in Paris or simply have known the engraving published in Le monde illustre on March 17, 1888
(Fig. 11).18
When Van Gogh painted the Starry Night, the moon was
not the crescent that appears in the painting. It only entered
the last quarter on the morning of June 20, 1889, and, as
noted earlier, the Starry Night was painted between June
16 and 18. The moon then was still in the full phase and
its shape was gibbous, that is, between a full circle and a
half circle.19The crescent moon in the Starry Night did not
therefore come from Van Gogh’s immediate observation.
It apparently came from his (unconscious?) memory of Breton’s use of it in conjunction with village and church, which
same combination is found in the Starry Night.20
If the preceding analysis is accepted, the Starry Night
emerges as an amalgam of images, some drawn from what
Van Gogh could see about him (hills, cypresses), some
drawn from his memory (church, crescent moon). Whether
they arose from observation or memory, conscious or unconscious, the individual components were combined in an
imaginative composition. Or, as Van Gogh later put it, “an
exaggeration from the point of view of arrangement.”21
Since the Starry Night is not a transcription of nature
but an imaginative amalgam, the question arises whether
it has any specific meaning, either intended or unconscious.
Any answer to this question should begin with the passage
in his letters where Van Gogh discussed the painting.
What Van Gogh Wrote About the Starry Night
In letter 595, of June 17 or 18, 1889, Vincent wrote Theo,
Museum La fin du travail, but since it does not match the illustrations in
the journals and Vachon, it must be A travers les champs instead. The
initial error was probably made by Clarence Cook. In Art and Artists of
Our Time, New York, 1888, II, 237-238, he described and illustrated the
image in my Figure 11, but called it Across the Fields. Since the Brooklyn
painting shows the sun, the title La fin du travail more aptly applies to
Figure 11.
19
Washington: Bureau of Navigation, The American Ephemeris and
Nautical Almanac for the Year 1889, 1886, 103, where the time is given
as 19:35, June 19. This is the astronomical time that converts to the civil
time of 7:35 a.m. on June 20.
20Crescent moons occur even more frequently in the work of Millet, whom
Van Gogh admired extravagantly. See Alexandra R. Murphy, JeanMillet, Boston, 1984, Cat. Nos. 62, 78, 100, 105, 109, 148.
Francois
21
Letters, No. 607, III, 217 (September 19, 1889).
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306
THE ART BULLETIN JUNE 1986 VOLUME LXVIII NUMBER 2
“I have a landscape with olive trees and also a new study
of a starry sky.”22The paragraphs that immediately follow
this laconic announcement are central to understanding the
Starry Night and Van Gogh’s intentions. The passage in its
original French appears as an appendix to this article. Here
I shall explain it bit by bit using an English translation.
Explication is necessary because Van Gogh expressed himself in an allusive, even cryptic manner. Apparently he
could not fully articulate something that touched him so
deeply.
The passage begins:
Though I hav …
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