Starry Night, among the most famous paintings in the history of art, is intimidating: it has Mona-Lisa-like recognizability, is the most famous of countless van Gogh paintings, and was created by an artist who, more than any other, epitomizes the tortured artist-genius-loner stereotype.
None other than the late Thomas Hoving, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1967-1977, reacted to the public perception of van Gogh:
There is more bunk written and believed about van Gogh than any other painter of recent times. (1)
The "bunk", according to Hoving, was spawned by the 1956 Oscar-winning movie, Lust for Life, based on Irving Stone's fictionalized account of van Gogh's life.
Vincent van Gogh. Starry Night, June 1889. Oil on canvas, 29" x 36 1/4". Acquired through Lillie P. Bliss Request. Museum of Modern Art, NY.
Hoving challenges two prevalent van Gogh stories:
that he sold only one painting, Red Vineyard in Arles, during his lifetime. Hoving counters that van Gogh paintings did sell, so successfully, in fact, that some were forged while van Gogh was alive; and
that van Gogh committed suicide. Hoving argues that van Gogh accidentally shot himself while cleaning his gun.
I'm mystified how and why Hollywood's version of van Gogh is more widely accepted than the truth (I'm assuming Hoving is correct because I'm not one to bet against a past Met Director). Regardless of fact or fiction about van Gogh, Starry Night is a masterpiece, a true wonder even among van Gogh paintings.
Why? Because in it, van Gogh has captured the vastness of the universe.
Starry Night pulsates with energy and opposites: it could as easily portray the creation of the world as its pending demise.
Starry Night captures chaos roiling in the skies while calmness blankets the village; it captures the Milky Way erupting over the stillness of an imaginary town.
The cypress trees bridge the earthly and heavenly worlds.
There's so much movement in the sky of Starry Night that you verge on vertigo when seeing it on site.
Anyone aspiring to be a painter should pay homage to Starry Night - as might anyone who doesn't know how powerful a masterpiece painting can be.
Vincent van Gogh. Self-Portrait, 1889. Oil on canvas, 25 1/2" x 21 1/4". Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
1. Greatest Works of Art of Western Civilization. Thomas Hoving, page 259.