Australian Fine Artist

Essay for Bachelor of Fine Art and Visual Culture Curtin University 2017

The sublime fascination with the night sky began very early in human history, evidenced by early records of the movement of the stars, moon and sun in stone monuments. The dwelling place of the gods in ceilings of the tombs in Egypt later became the firmament of heaven for Christianity, and with the advent of the telescope, the night sky increasingly became a place of investigation into our place in the universe. During the 19th century, the paintings of Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) revealed his fascination with the night sky inspired by literature, religious beliefs, and prominent artists like Rembrandt (1606-1669) and Whistler (1834-1903). An examination of van Gogh’s three most prominent night scenes contrasted with contemporary 19th-century paintings, historic and contemporary sources, and current views of deep space will argue that the Sublime beauty of the universe is clearly evident in his paintings and that they are forerunners to the images viewed by the Hubble telescope. It will provide evidence of how visions of the night sky have expanded from ideas based on myth or religion to a broader interpretation of the Sublime, and comprehension of a universe in which the earth is but a tiny spec.

There have been a variety of theories regarding the nature of the Sublime and their pertinence to van Gogh’s nocturnal paintings is debatable. In fact, the contrary conclusions stated by various writers and philosophers could lead to more confusion regarding the subject, than clarification. According to Pseudo-Longinus (c. 1st-century CE), the power of words was Sublime by use of emotive and reasoned rhetoric, replacing regular thoughts with an incomprehensible experience, leaving lasting pleasure. The poems of Homer are a Classical example of this type of rhetoric, and a modern equivalent are the words of Neil Armstrong (1930-2012) in 1969, as he became the first man on the moon:

That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Edmund Burke described the Sublime as the source of the strongest human emotions, and if removed from the consequences of pain and terror, delight is experienced. He also said that sources of the Sublime included the infinite and that in a physical world of beginnings and endings we attempt to make sense of this endlessness (Eco 2010). Burke didn’t talk specifically about the universe but based his interpretation of the Sublime on Nature, stating that in darkness the human eye finds pain by trying to cope with the lack of light, and the significance of emotional and mental pain brought on by the dark (Burke 1990). Van Gogh was drawn to the infinite nature of the night sky, but according to his letters, there was more awe and challenge rather than pain or terror involved in his observations.

In The Sublime (2006), Philip Shaw looked at the concept of the Sublime, examining theories by philosophers Derrida (1930-2004) and Lyotard (1924-1998) who argued the Post-modernist idea of the Sublime that required parergon, or framing based on a precise point of view or alignment. In other words, the Sublime was dependant on your point of view or bounded by your unbounded power of reason; limited and unlimited at the same time. Lacan (1901-1981) and Zizek (1949-) also contended that anything could be elevated to fulfil the pleasure desired from experiencing the Sublime or as an indicator of the inability to achieve it (Shaw 2007). This contradicted earlier Romanticist views, which interpreted it as something in Nature beyond human comprehension (Diwan 2013). Although van Gogh is not identified with the Romanticists, artists like Delacroix (1798-1863) influenced him, and it could be argued that this concept is more compatible with his motivation to paint the night sky.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) contended that the Sublime could be experienced from the point of view of the empirical domain based on reason. Therefore, the incomprehensible expanse of the universe could not be appreciated by observing its superficial beauty alone, and judgements about its aesthetics had to be based on empirical rules. He concluded that human experience of the Sublime uncoupled from any religious undertones could be purely subjective or reasoned, effectively removing God from the equation. 20th-century thinker Thomas Weiskel (1945-1974) described the Sublime as a psychological need for love and fear of parental figures and a desire to unite with the nurturing cosmos (Hirshberg 1994). Considering his religious background and family history, it is not clear how much these concepts could have influenced van Gogh (Baerg 1998). As a result, a more accurate analysis of his motivation comes from Schopenhauer’s (1788-1860) Transitional Scale from Beauty to the Fullest Feeling of Sublime which simply states that pleasure is realised by understanding nothingness and oneness with nature in light of the extent of the universe.

Descended from a line of clergymen, Van Gogh failed to fulfil his family’s ambitions in art dealing and the church. His obsessive behaviour set him at odds with most people, and it was not until his late twenties that he took up a career as a painter, supported by his brother Theo in 1880 (Canaday 1959, 363-368). Unable to deal with Academic training, he travelled to Brussels and eventually to Paris where he refined his palette and found a new direction in his painting technique inspired by established artists like Pissarro (1830-1903), Gaugin (1848-1903) and Monticelli (1824-1886). In early 1888, the frequency of seizures and desire for a warmer climate prompted his return to a less frantic existence in Arles, and later the sanatorium near Saint-Rémy, where he painted some of his most strikingly colourful and innovative works (Naifeh and Smith 2011). It was only in his last years that van Gogh was accepted by art critics, while he was under the personal care of doctor and hobbyist artist Paul Gachet, and it was during this time that he produced his now famous night paintings.

Figure 1.
Vincent Van Gogh. Road with Cyprus and Star. 1890. Oil on Canvas. 92x73cm.
Holland: Kroller Muller Museum.

Religious beliefs, a love of nature, and the desire to continually challenge himself as a painter drew van Gogh to his fascination with the night sky. The swirling and haloed stars held life and movement indicating a freedom and joy that was often missing in his life. In Starry Night and Starry Night over the Rhone, van Gogh emphasised the sky, adding the landscape for context, and although the sky is only a small portion of the composition in The Café Terrace du Forum, Arles, at Night (Figure 4) it attracts the eye past the buildings and small figures in the street. Although it cannot be stated definitively that van Gogh was considering the vastness of the seemingly endless universe in these paintings, we can understand his love of its Sublime Beauty. In a letter to his sister in 1889, he wrote:

“It often seems to me that the night is even more richly coloured than the day, colored with the most intense violets, blues and greens. If you look carefully, you’ll see that some stars are lemony, others have a pink, green, forget-me-not blue glow. And without labouring the point, it’s clear to paint a starry sky it’s not nearly enough to put white spots on a blue-black.” (Paulson 2016).

Van Gogh’s impressions of stars clouded by mist in a living and expanding universe, in contrast to a dark foreboding emptiness, anticipate views discovered over two hundred years later in the 21st-century photographs from the Hubble telescope. So it is not only the subject but also the colour and technique of his paintings that reference the Sublime, as well as his emotions as he painted.

Figure 2.
Vincent Van Gogh. Starry Night. 1889. Oil on Canvas. 73x92cm. New York: The Museum of Modern Art.

Due to frequent insomnia, van Gogh gained a familiarity with the night sky from his window at the Saint-Paul asylum. In contrast to contemporaries, in his most famous painting The Starry Night (1889), the sky takes up a large proportion of the canvas and includes accurate positioning of the constellations (MoMa 2017). Van Gogh appreciated more than the contrast of black darkness to sunlight in the nocturnal sky because in it he saw light, colour and life, movement and atmosphere based on a deep appreciation of Nature. He wrote to his brother Theo that in his search for something spiritual, he went outside to paint the stars (Trachtman 2008). In a letter to his sister, dated 1888, he referred to Walt Whitman’s poetry:

He sees in the future, and even in the present, a world of healthy, carnal love, strong and frank – of friendship – of work – under the great starlit vault of heaven a something which after all one can only call God – and eternity in its place above this world. At first it makes you smile, it is so candid and pure; but it sets you thinking for the same reason.”

The night sky was a source of solace and the spiritual combining both the infinite and a technical artistic challenge. He asked in one letter to Theo, why we shouldn’t be able to access the stars as easily as the places marked on a map of France. He went on to say that he saw death as the only way to access them; raising conjecture, that this was partially behind his alleged suicide. Whether or not this it true, Van Gogh’s patient observations hint at the Sublime of the universe, alluding to phenomena that would not be clearly observed until photographs of deep space were produced during the early 21st century.

Figure 3.
Vincent Van Gogh. Starry Night Over the Rhone. 1888. Oil on Canvas. 72.5x92cm. Paris: Musee d’Orsay.


Figure 4. Vincent Van Gogh. The Café Terrace du Forum, Arles, at Night. 1888. Oil on Canvas. 81x65cm. Kroller-Müller Museum.

During the time that Van Gogh was painting his night skies, other artists were looking at the stars and colours in the darkness. Amongst them was Whistler, who is noted for the word Nocturne in the titles of his night paintings, calling on works like Chopin’s 21 pieces for piano produced between 1827 and 1846. The haunting melodies such as Nocturne Opus 9 No. 2, no doubt, moving artists to look to the sky at night. This inspiration began with Irish Composer John Field, whose work influenced Chopin (Homma et al 2000). The references to the night sky by composers, artists and poets reflect how various genres influenced each other during this period and how van Gogh was similarly inspired as he investigated the work of various artists.

Figure 5
. James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Nocturne. 1870-77. USA: The White House.

The depiction of darkness and the night in paintings that developed in the Netherlands during the 17th century typified by Rembrandt’s use of dramatic contrasts influenced Van Gogh (Thomson 2008, 12-13). He was widely read and well informed about contemporary and historic artists, and his broad experimentation with styles and subjects and deep love of the effects of light and dark used by Rembrandt and Delacroix led to his mastery of the night sky (Pissarro 2008, 28-31). Examination of Starry Night over the Rhone (Figure 3), Whistler’s Nocturne (Figure 5) and Church’s The Meteor of 1860 (Figure 6) indicate similarities, but it is the brilliance of Van Gogh’s haloed stars that sets him apart by his application of life and movement, through which we gain a more sensitive appreciation of the Sublime Beauty of the night sky.

Figure 6.
Frederic Edwin Church. 1860-61. The Meteor of 1860. Oil on Canvas. 10×17.5 inches. Private Collection.

Van Gogh’s fascination with the stars was only a small part of a long history of observation of the night sky beginning as early as the Neolithic period (c. 2,500BCE) and continuing into the modern era. Astronomers and mathematicians like Hipparchus of Nicaea (190-120 BCE) adopted Babylonian mathematics and improved astronomical instruments, setting the stage for Claudius Ptolemy (c.100-168 CE) whose work enable accurate predictions of the position of planets. In India, Aryabhata (c. 476-550 CE) hypothesised the position of nine planets, and diameter and rotation of the earth and moon around the sun. These foundations led to the later discoveries by Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), Isaac Newton (1643-1727), Albert Einstein (1879-1955), and Carl Sagan (1934-1996), who all studied the stars and the physics of the universe. It is interesting to note that during 1888, as van Gogh was producing the first of his observations of the night sky, that Ernst Heinrich Heinkel (1888-1958), the inventor of the first rocket-powered aircraft was born (Myhra 2013, 53). This innovation led to current space exploration, and the launching of the Hubble telescope enabling the fulfilment of van Gogh’s ambition to reach to the stars.

Figure 7.
Hubble Spies a Spiral Snowflake. 2016. NASA.

Two hundred years after the death of van Gogh, the launch of the Hubble Telescope in 1990 gave humanity its first chance to clearly see into deep space. It was named after Edwin Hubble (1889-1953), who posited the theory of an expanding universe in 1929 (Edwin Hubble 2015). Spiral galaxies and warped space (Figures 7 and 8) captured by Hubble can be directly compared with the surprising similarity in the painting Starry Night, displaying churning gases, swirling solar systems and coloured stellar haloes, and what is becoming evident in these views is the magnitude and age of the universe in comparison to the Earth. For example, The Globular Cluster NGC 6397 (Figure 9), located about 7,200 light-years away is estimated to be 13.5 billion years old, making it amongst the first objects to form in the galaxy (ESO 1999). Scientists are now considering the concept of multiple universes, areas of nothing, and what existed before time, making the cosmos far more Sublime and beyond imagination than humans had previously anticipated (Krauss 2012). From this evidence, it is clear to see that the images provided by Hubble bear a resemblance to van Gogh’s limited views of the stars that may have been previously overlooked.

Figure 8.
Black Hole in NGC 1600. 2016. Enhanced Photograph. Hubble Site.

Figure 9.
The globular cluster NGC 6397. 2016. © NASA, ESA, and H. Richer (University of British Columbia).

During van Gogh’s lifetime philosophers, psychologists, and academics were removing God from their debates raising the question of how much their theories may have affected him. During the 19th-century Europe was experiencing a period of great social change, beginning with the Age of Enlightenment and Industrial Age, and established beliefs were being challenged (Figure 10). As a result, established churches were in fear of losing followers despite their efforts to remind them of their place in God’s realm (Figure 11). Concern was raised by publications like the first volume of Baumgarten’s Aesthetica (1750), which prompted a discussion leading to the German study of das Erhabene. This prompted Kant’s theological argument about God’s existence followed up on by Nietzsche (1844-1900) who argued the case for ‘the death of God’ and the value of human existence without a creator.

Psychologists, like Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), offered further theories about pleasure gained from pain, or how the Sublime erupts in the mind in the form of Sublimation (Mehigan 2003). For Freud, the expression of such Sublime emotions was unpredictable and therefore negative for society, a view that was set forth by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) (Cooper 1962, 81). Furthermore, Freud’s argument was that religion kept humans in a continual infantile state of submission to pain as part of ‘God’s plan’ rather than analysing where it originated. The arguments about the nature of the self and interpretation of the Sublime without religious overtones, and what type of pain is positive in light of that argument, would impact how many artists saw themselves and the cosmos. Given Van Gogh’s strong religious upbringing, references to God in his letters, and time in the asylum, if exposed to these theories, the idea that he was concerned about more than his seizures and doubts about his artistic skills while studying the night sky must be considered.

Figure 10. Katherine Bowman. 2011. Ceiling of the tomb of Queen Nefertari (c. 1295-1255BCE), Egypt. Image © Sandro Vannini/Corbis.

Figure 11. David Stephenson. 2012. Sainte-Chappelle, France.

The similarities between van Gogh’s nocturnal paintings, Starry Night in particular, and the views of galaxies and nebula through the Hubble telescope are striking, and it can be surmised that the Sublime nature of the universe drew both him and later scientists to investigate its form and beauty. When referencing the night sky in his paintings, van Gogh contradicted people like Nietzsche because of his Christian beliefs, by seeing the cosmos as the vast kingdom of God. He also based his artistic sensibilities on his study of prominent artists. Modern scientists, on the other hand, research the origins, boundaries, and composition of the universe by gathering empirical data, but are similarly astounded by their findings. The starlit skies of van Gogh created a sense of wonder, and as each new image of deep space is released from Hubble, we gain a new appreciation of what attracts artists and scientists. Based on scientific advances made since the Age of Enlightenment views of the universe have gone further than ever before as our understanding of our place within it has deepened. Artists and Scientists using the Hubble telescope now have the opportunity to further investigate what van Gogh touched on, to reveal the immensity of the cosmos, although not necessarily as the realm of God. Therefore, it can be argued that various interpretations of the Sublime not only remain relevant in the 21st-century, but also are evidenced by the nocturnal paintings of van Gogh and the images from the Hubble telescope as windows to the awe-inspiring universe.


Figure 12. Janice Mills. 2008. Horse Head Nebula. Oil on Canvas. 45x91cm. Private Collector.



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Figure 1. Vincent van Gogh. Road with Cyprus and Star. 1890. Oil on Canvas. 92x73cm. Holland: Kroller Muller Museum.

Figure 2. Vincent van Gogh. Starry Night. Oil on Canvas. 1889. 73x92cm. New York: The Museum of Modern Art.

Figure 3. Vincent van Gogh. Starry Night Over the Rhone. 1888. Oil on Canvas. 72.5x92cm. Paris: Musee d’Orsay.

Figure 4. Vincent van Gogh. The Café Terrace du Forum, Arles, at Night. 1888. Oil on Canvas. 81x65cm. Kroller-Müller Museum.é-Terrace-on-the-Place-du-Forum,-Arles,-at-Night,-The.html.

Figure 5. James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Nocturne. 1870-77. USA: The White House.

Figure 6. Frederic Edwin Church. The Meteor of 1860. 1860-61. Oil on Canvas. 10×17.5 inches. Private Collection.

Figure 7. Hubble Spies a Spiral Snowflake. 2016. NASA.

Figure 8. Black Hole in NGC 1600. 2016. Enhanced Photograph. Hubble Site.

Figure 9. NASA, ESA, and H. Richer .The globular cluster NGC 6397. 2016. University of British Columbia.

Figure 10. Katherine Bowman. Ceiling of the Tomb of Queen Nefertari (c. 1295-1255BCE), Egypt. 2011. Photograph.

Figure 11. David Stephenson. Sainte-Chappelle, France. 2012.

Figure 12. Janice Mills. Horse Head Nebula. 2008. Oil on Canvas. 45x91cm. Private Collector.

© Copyright Janice Mills. Any reproduction without written consent is strictly prohibited.


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