Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night depicts a night scene which consists of large Cypress tree, distant village houses, wavy hills and mountains, and a swirling pool of starlight in the sky. Drawn when the 36-years old Vincent admitted himself into an asylum not far from Paris in 1889 after a long series of complications with family and friends, which has resulted in him becoming an outcast.
Vincent was brought up in an upper middle-class family, despite his parents’ strict guidance, such as discouraging the social interaction with those in the lower social class, he appeared to despise the lifestyle that he was meant to be living in. Even though Vincent who was unemployed for almost his whole life and was supported by his father and younger brother, frequently spent generously on art supplies and studio modifications, he lived quite a frugal life in terms of diet, accommodation, clothing and other spending on basic needs. He seems always to scorn the rising bourgeois class. He preferred the countryside more than the cities of Paris, London, The Hague. Evidence of it can often be seen in his constant encouragement of his brother to leave the metropolitan to the countryside where the fresh air and water can rejuvenate one’s health.
Furthermore, he “took long walks at night, peering into the sky and pondering the new reports of distant planets and unseen worlds, imagining a paradise that he seemed unable to make in his own world.” 1 He made this statement in the brush work of the starry night, where the landscape is painted solid and the sky is fluid or full of movements. In his previous paintings, this application of brushwork has the opposite roles, where the sky or lamps is still and the rest of the scene is painted with fluid brushstrokes as those used to paint the swirl pool of stars in the sky. Vincent further emphasise his message through the over the top use of rapid and liquid brushstrokes on the starry sky. This effect shows the high contrast between the city and the countryside in favour of the latter, an opinion that was definitely less popular during the time.
The starlight is painted with brushstrokes that spreads outwards in a circular motion. Vincent’s way of depicting the stars in the night sky is extremely unconventional. As stated earlier, Vincent used to paint the stars as merely bright dots on a flat dark sky. However, that was when he used to live in the populated cities. This sharp contrast between the same night sky and in two different settings shows Vincent might have unintentionally discovered light pollution.
Contrary to his earlier way of painting the night sky, he splurged the fierce emotion within the star lights that were suppressed in the city’s night sky onto his painting. Perhaps it was only when he was able to escape from the illusion of the big cities to the peaceful and quiet country side then he could indulge in the heaven that he had always preferred. In his letter to his brother, Theo, he once wrote, “Why, I ask myself, should the shining dots of the sky not be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France?”, questioning the reasons behind the people’s lack of motivation to explore the uncertainty.
Vincent also import the techniques of the Japanese Masters of Ukiyo-e (“floating world”). The Japanese masters often made prints full of spirals that closed upon themselves. This technique was used “to induced space depth and often built according to a staging of successive horizontal plans.” This characteristic can be found in the obvious whirls of moving stars in the painting. However, whether Vincent did adopt the foreign art technique, which was fairly popular in the art society, or simply the aftermath of his troubled mind is still widely debated.
Although, unconventional painting method has been used on this painting. Vincent certainly retains some conventional techniques such as the addition of other elements and objects as a method of creating a structure. From the view out of Vincent’s barred cell window, one would not see the large Cypress tree that takes up a large area of the painting nor the sleepy small town in front of the mountain and hills. Those were the elements that was added in by Vincent. The Cypress was taken from his frequent drawings of Cypress tree field during his trips outside the asylum granted by the institution. The town was located not far from the asylum too. With the addition of these elements, the painting structure and perspective are enhanced through the implementation of the vanishing point towards the center of the painting. However, it might again be unintentional as Vincent was known for not drawing freehand and “depended on models, studio “tricks” like the perspective frame, and endless attempts to achieve anything like verisimilitude.
Nevertheless, despite the usage of vanishing point and perspective, there is also the oddly positioned high point of view, at the level of the sky, and extremely low horizon, conceivably to emphasise on the starry night again. This simply altercation of conventional technique contributes to the uniqueness of this painting compared to those during the time. We can find similar usage of this technique and effect on Èdouard Manet’s work which I will discuss later in this essay.
Another feature about this painting that is worth mentioning is the usage and effect of light. As mentioned earlier, the glare of the starlight spreads outwardly in a circular motion or “concentric circles”. These star lights are painted luminously, far brighter than the faint light coming from the houses in the village. There is a sharp imbalance of brightness between the sky and the landscape, which seems bridged together naturally by the large cypress, bridging the heaven and the earth. Vincent chose to use the colors with colder tones to enhance somehow the effect of peacefulness carried out by the light that stands on themselves and does not diffuse upon any other objects within the scene.
“Starry night” brings a feeling of reminiscence despite the painter’s chaotic brushstrokes that is often viewed as the handwork of a madman. Vincent was able to achieve this by putting in details of the reality. The depicted scene is certainly not a made-up view, however as proven earlier, some elements are added on as supplements to the painting’s complexity.
Similarly, in “Luncheon on the Grass”, Manet wanted to make a controversial statement at the time he painted it. Manet comes from an upper class household with strong political connections. Naturally, criticisms and judgmental views would not affect a person of aristocracy. His painting depicts two fully dressed men, a naked woman sitting along with the men, and a lightly clothed woman seemingly bathing in the background. This painting was controversial for its indecency despite its truth. Although, Manet presented a scene that would be common within the everyday life in Paris, he presented the reality that was overseen. It is certainly true that such day time prostitution is a taboo in the 19th century society. However, like Vincent, Manet wanted to show the people something present, but people did not prefer to acknowledge, like the starry night sky seen from the asylum that embarrassed the pathetic dark sky in the metropolitan.
In terms of painting techniques, Manet, who was independent from the mainstream expectations from the art community, chose to take the unconventional path of using loosely painted brush strokes, in forms that were considered informal and unsuitable. It was also one of the main reasons that “Luncheon on the Grass” was rejected for the Paris Salon and was only displayed at the exhibition for the rejected art. Such great contrast between Manet’s careless brushstroke and the fine brushstrokes that we can see on Alexandre Cabanel’s “The Birth of Venus” that blends the colour in fine details. The art community was certainly shocked at the technical quality of “Luncheon on the Grass”. But, of course, Manet was simply unmoved by the critical reception as it was exactly what he meant to do.
If looked closely, the body of the naked woman seems rather flat. The naked body lacks the shadows that create the natural curvature shape of women’s body, that we could see again on “The Birth of Venus”. Moreover, unlike Venus, the woman in Manet’s painting is simply naked, not the nude presented in Cabanel’s painting that seems virtuous than indecent. This was the main reason for the controversy, such direct way of showing nakedness to the public, mainly the lack of embarrassment. Again, Manet was not afraid to make a strong statement, that he was unafraid of the critical judgments that the audience would give. His braveness in his art, made him a pioneer in modern art.
A feeling of reminiscence exists in “Luncheon on the grass”. Firstly, it borrows inspirations from existing masterpiece, “The Pastoral Concert” by Titian and “Judgement of Paris” by Raphael. Secondly, Manet also “challenged the three-dimensional perspectivalism established in Renaissance painting” and “painted figures with a flatness derived partly from Japanese art” 4. Likewise, both Manet and Vincent were not afraid to borrow inspirations from other culture, and were bravely implementing them into their provocative artwork.
On the other hand, Manet’s work also provides a feeling of realness, just as Vincent chose to display the wavy wool-like trees and bushes, common village houses and simply bare nature on his painting. In “Luncheon on the Grass”, Manet did so by creating an image of a real setting and creating a scene of “daily life” which was realness might have been too direct for the skeptical audience to take in. He presented the fashionable men in their clothing and head ware and the casually naked woman under lighting that seems unnatural. There is a lack of shadows in the painting, though it might have been one of Manet’s “careless” ways of painting, omitting the features that were considered necessary. Manet induced a feeling of involvement between the naked woman and the viewer through her returning gaze.
Vincent attempts to make the viewers crave for the sight of the starry night sky, and Manet makes the viewers crave for the naked woman’s attention. Despite the sketchy like painting techniques, Manet created a seemingly realistic or convincible painting for the audience, just as Vincent did with his whirlpool-like starry night sky.
Vincent enhanced the simple effect of perception by the placement of the elements in his painting, Manet attempts the same technique, however in a way of creating more of an illusion rather than simplistic elements placement. For instance, the bathing woman in the background appears to be bending over to pick up something from the water in the pond, however due to the odd scale, her hand appears to be going towards one of the man’s instead. This is a rather unusual spatial problem that should not exist in an experienced artist’s work. Understandably, rather odd lighting exist as he could have drawn this painting in a studio, however the reasons behind the cut out like women figures sparked a wide range of debate.
Other than creating a shocking image through “Luncheon on the Grass”, the painting also invites the viewers to indulge themselves into questioning the uncertainty within the frame. But, most importantly, Manet painted the models behaving in an unexplainable way:
- The naked woman’s returning gaze captures immediate attention from the viewer, it seems as if the naked woman notices the viewer or painter but is not even slightly moved by it. Her lack of embarrassment, being completely naked among fully clothed men at a park in broad daylight, and her confidence in her behavior puts the audience into deeper confusion.
- The man on the right appears to be interacting with the other man, however the latter is weirdly staring in a direction certainly not towards the first man.
- With four characters within a single frame, none of them appears to interact with one another.
Such a strange setting creates an open discussion of the characters’ intention in Manet’s painting, further involving the viewer into thinking deeply about the painting.
“Luncheon on the Grass” teases the viewer, creates a strong declaration of independence by not worrying much about the its reception. In addition to the lack of finish in the painting technique, this painting created the shocking effect that makes it the beginning of the modern art era.
In comparison to Vincent Van Gogh, Manet was fortunate enough to have the advantage of being in the higher social class which allows him to literarily ignore the harsh criticism from the art society that might have affected Vincent too negatively, which lead him to only produce a shocking or provocative painting as the “Starry Night”. As during Vincent’s time at the asylum, he was able to “draw and paint in public unmolested and unmocked” and in a letter to his brother, he wrote “It has always been my great desire to paint for those who do not know the artistic aspect of a picture.”. Nevertheless, both artists exercise the bravery to create something unconventional, something ahead of them, prompting the art audience in the mid 19th century to indulge in a new art category unlike the previous.