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The Starry Night

Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear. Vincent van Gogh

If you don't know who Vincent van Gogh is, there's only one explanation: you are from another planet. Here is a quick summary. Van Gogh is known for producing one of the most famous paintings in the entire world and for chopping off his own ear. Now, you might be wondering, why would he cut off his own ear? The short story is he got in a fight with another artist, Paul Gauguin, and van Gogh threatened the knife on him but ended up cutting off his own ear. Shortly after, he admitted himself to a mental asylum. At the asylum, he was encouraged to paint and had a nice view out of his window. These two factors led to the creation of arguably the most famous painting in history, The Starry Night.


It is important to know that The Starry Night is a perfect example of Post-Impressionist art. Artists practicing this style were interested in expressing emotional and psychological impressions of the world. I highly recommend that you know some characteristics of Post-Impressionism for the AP Exam, so here is a list.

- vibrant colors

- thick paint

- visible brushstrokes

- real-life subject matter

The Starry Night contains all of these characteristics as the yellow stars are a vibrant yellow and the paint on the canvas is thick. The brushstrokes are clearly visible, and the setting is realistic subject matter, a night sky and a village.

The Starry Night. Vincent van Gogh. 1889 CE. Oil on canvas. The Painting Itself

The average person looks at The Starry Night and simplys sees an abstracted version of the night sky. While that is definitely true, there is also more depth to it.

In the front left, we see a cypress tree that consumes a good portion of the canvas. The bottom of the tree is not shown, which makes it seem extremely close to the viewer. The cypress tree is often a symbol of death because it is found in cemeteries. It can also represent the afterlife, serving as a bridge between heaven and the earth. The most compelling aspect of the painting is the sky, which takes up the majority of the canvas. The swirls and brushstrokes create a sense of turmoil and disruption, which contrasts the calm and humble village below. It almost feels like the village is protected from the disruptive sky above, as there is a lighter line of paint serving as a buffer just above the horizon. The activity in the sky implies the presence of heaven and the divine. While the paint is thick in some places, there are also bits of exposed canvas. The painting contains complementary colors seen by the blue and the orange/yellow. Van Gogh was interested in how colors could emphasize each other.

As I mentioned earlier, van Gogh had a nice view from his room in the asylum. However, The Starry Night is not a representation of that view. Instead, it is made up of elements from van Gogh's memory.

Quick Takeaways

I highly recommend knowing the characteristics of Post-Impressionist art. Remember that Van Gogh constructed the setting of The Starry Night from memories and that it does not actually exist. It would definitely be helpful to know some key aspects of the painting, including the contrast between the sky and village, the symbolization of the cypress tree, and the use of complementary colors.


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