On the 8th of May 1889, Vincent van Gogh was admitted to the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole Asylum in Saint-Rémy, just outside of Provence. Originally, the plan was for him to enter a large public institution in the heart of Marseilles, filled with thousands of other patients; if he had, though, he would not have been able to produce the extraordinary works of art that he is now most known for.
In that small asylum, van Gogh was treated with respect and kindness. There, the doctors realized that he needed space and freedom to create if he were to survive. It was during his time at that asylum that Vincent van Gogh painted Starry Night, the piece that is widely regarded to be his masterwork. This is the story of how one of the most recognizable paintings in Western art came to be:
Situated on what can only be described as a picturesque location, the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole Asylum is surrounded by gardens and lavender fields and offers spectacular countryside views, as well as of the low mountain range of Les Alpilles. It was led by a progressive former naval doctor, Théophile Peyron, and catered only to the wealthy, which meant that it accommodated only a small number of patients.
When van Gogh arrived, the asylum was less than half full. This allowed the institution to give him space to both live and work, and he was provided a second-story bedroom, as well as a painting studio on the ground floor. Views from in and around this location, as well as the circumstances he was in, became the subject of most of the work he produced throughout this period, including Vestibule of the Asylum and Saint-Rémy, both painted in September 1889. The gardens around the asylum also provided inspiration; he painted one of his most famous pieces, Irises, in the same month that he was admitted.
Van Gogh in Saint-Rémy
Though often portrayed in popular culture as a crazed artist who drank too much and was a danger not only to himself but also to others, Vincent van Gogh was in fact rational and lucid most of the time. He did, however, suffer from extreme manic episodes from time to time, as well as psychosis and delusions.
His time and treatment at the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole Asylum had a positive effect on him, though. There, he fell into a routine and was given three square meals a day, which contributed greatly to his physical and mental health. The provision of facilities that allowed him to continue to sketch and paint also gave him a sense of purpose and meaning. He was allowed to go on short walks of the grounds while supervised, and he was surrounded by beauty, with his east-facing bedroom window offering a brilliant view of the sunrise each day. There was no shortage of subjects to paint, despite the limiting nature of his circumstances.
It is also fortunate that the doctors at the asylum believed in music and art as tools for healing. Overall, van Gogh was well enough to spend at least 75% of his time in the asylum painting. He completed about 150 paintings throughout his stay there, which only lasted a little over a year.
The Starry Night
It was in the middle of June 1889 that van Gogh first spoke about painting a “starry sky”. He wrote about it to his younger brother, Theo.
Because the asylum did not allow van Gogh to paint from his bedroom, The Starry Night was instead created and finished in the ground floor studio he had been given. It depicts the night sky view from his bedroom window, and was possibly painted entirely from memory. The view should be a familiar one to those who follow the artist’s works closely; he depicted it at different times of the day and under various weather conditions.
Like many of the artists from his generation, van Gogh was influenced by Japanese prints, and he collected hundreds of them. He was an admirer of Hokusai, and The Great Wave held a special place in his heart. Here, comparisons can be made between how Hokusai composed the tempestuous seas off Kanagawa and the swirling colors of the sky in van Gogh’s Starry Night. Both works of art also made use of deep and rich blue tones. The tight cropping of Starry Night also calls to the style used in many Japanese prints, such as Kobayashi Kiyochika’s Under a Cherry Tree.
Although first resistant to the idea of painting with his imagination, van Gogh found that it was necessary to do so, given his limited access to the outside world. As such, Starry Night is not, in fact, an accurate depiction of the view from his window. The cypress tree depicted in the painting is closer and larger than it actually is, for one, and the sleepy village below does not exist.
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