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The Infamous Starry Night and the Art it Inspires

Updated on June 5, 2014

Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh


Vincent Van Gogh


Starry Night is Vincent Van Gogh’s most famous painting, but very little is known of what or who inspired this beautiful masterpiece. There are theories out there that claim Walt Whitman is the inspiration for this magnificent piece; specifically his poem Song of Myself section 21 to be exact. Scholars and theorist are using letters Vincent wrote to his sister Wilhelmina as evidence proving he was inspired by Whitman because within these letters he discusses the work of Whitman and they were written in 1888 and Starry Night was painted in June of 1889. So it’s not a stretch to say Whitmans’ poem had inspired Van Gogh to create one of his most captivating pieces especially when we examine the section that was said to be the spark of inspiration.

Whitman's "Song of Myself," section 21:

I am he that walks with the tender and growing night,
I call to the earth and sea half-held by the night.

Press close bare-bosom'd night--press close magnetic nourishing night!
Night of south winds--night of the large few stars!
Still nodding night--mad naked summer night.

Smile O voluptuous cool-breath'd earth!
Earth of the slumbering and liquid trees!
Earth of departed sunset--earth of the mountains misty-topt!
Earth of the vitreous pour of the full moon just tinged with blue!
Earth of shine and dark mottling the tide of the river!
Earth of the limpid gray of clouds brighter and clearer for my sake!
Far-swooping elbow'd earth--rich apple-blossom'd earth!
Smile, for your lover comes.

Prodigal, you have given me love--therefore I to you give love!
O unspeakable passionate love.

When I first heard of this theory I dismissed it until I read Song of Myself and while reading section 21 I could see Van Gogh’s painting within the lines. Whitman has this fluidity in his lines that Van Gogh puts to canvas and together with this poem and Van Gogh’s painting they create this work of art that sings in volumes to its’ admirers. I am a huge fan of Van Gogh and Starry Night is my absolute favorite painting because amongst all of the chaos of swirling cosmos there is this quiet little town below that seems untouched by what is going on above and it’s beautiful and passionate.

Vincent Van Gogh was inspired by the poet Walt Whitman and produced this masterpiece that is still adored by many; in turn many poets are inspired by Starry Night themselves. One of those poets being Anne Sexton. Published in her book All My Pretty Ones is an exquisite poem that brings another meaning to the work of Van Gogh. Anne Sexton was a dark and twisted poet who wrote a lot about death and her poem The Starry Night is one that exhibits such themes. Sexton seems to look at the painting as a beautiful way to die during the night, underneath the beauty of the night sky.

The Starry Night

That does not keep me from having a terrible need
of—shall I say the word—religion. Then I go
out at night to paint the stars.
Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to his brother
The town does not exist
except where one black-haired tree slips
up like a drowned woman into the hot sky.
The town is silent. The night boils with eleven stars.
Oh starry starry night! This is how
I want to die.
It moves. They are all alive.
Even the moon bulges in its orange irons
to push children, like a god, from its eye.
The old unseen serpent swallows up the stars.
Oh starry starry night! This is how
I want to die:
into that rushing beast of the night,
sucked up by that great dragon, to split
from my life with no flag,
no belly,
no cry.

Sexton sees a beautiful way to die in Van Gogh’s painting. Instead of a cypress dancing with the wind she sees a woman drowning in the night and from there sparks this beautiful way to die. What I enjoy about her poem is the darkness it reflects and this way of viewing death as something one should be in awe of, it’s an interesting way of examining Van Gogh’s work but the man was a little twisted himself so maybe Sexton isn’t that far off with her reading of the famous painting.

Anne Sexton Reading The Starry Night

Wheatfield with Crows by Vincent Van Gogh

Painted in July 1890 said to be Vincent Van Gogh's last painting.
Painted in July 1890 said to be Vincent Van Gogh's last painting. | Source

Another poet who was inspired by Van Gogh was Tupac Shakur, published in his book of poems The Rose that Grew from Concrete is his poem Starry Night (Dedicated in Memory of Vincent Van Gogh). His poem is interesting because it’s more of a dedication to his work than an interpretation of his painting Starry Night. What I like about this poem is that Tupac is paying homage to a man who poured everything he had into his art and was never recognized for it until his death.

Starry Night
a creative heart, obsessed with satisfying
This dormant and uncaring society
u have given them the stars at night
and u have given them Bountiful Bouquets of Sunflowers
But 4 u there is only contempt
and though u pour yourself into that frame
and present it so proudly
this world could not accept your masterpieces
from the heart
So on that starry night
u gave 2 us and
u took away from us
The one thing we never acknowledged
   your life 

This poem is interesting because it suggests that Starry Night was the last painting Van Gogh did before his suicide; however scholars believe that his last painting was Wheat Field with Crows. Now that painting is also an interesting one especially if it was his last because it seems as if the crows are parts of him and they are flying up from this wheat field and sort of blending in with the dark sky above, which could symbolize him leaving this world. But Tupac does something interesting here he brings to light the fact that this man poured his heart and soul into his paintings and was never recognized for it, instead he was seen as a crazed man who was deeply disturbed. But aren’t all of the greats disturbed or suffer from some kind of infliction. I think that’s what creates their best and most memorable work.

Now while trying to find other more established poets who have written about this famous painting I found other poets who have their own thoughts on the painting. One I found written by a poet Rick Parise entitled A Depiction of One Artist and His Starry Night . This poem is beautifully written and brings the essence of the painting to life through the written word. My favorite lines of this poem come at the end where Parise writes: “You are mine ,my asylum , my starry night/a dimension of light under this wrenching canopy of demise/oh Vincent...”. What I love about these lines is that Parise doesn’t only bring the painting to life, but he puts things into perspective like the fact that Van Gogh was in an asylum when this painting was produced. It brings a new element to the painting that I feel isn’t expressed.

Another interesting tidbit I uncovered was a tribute to those who died on September 11, 2001 entitled Starry Night. This was interesting because they took the idea for the painting and turned it into something that people could give tribute to. The poem or writing that goes along with this tribute not only illustrates that loss, but gives an interesting description of Van Gogh’s painting.

Starry Night
heartbeats echo
from distant light 
death’s mystery calls 
from unknown height 
twilight veiled 
by starry night 
opens our eyes 
to timeless space 
opens our hearts 
to an unknown place


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    • CyberShelley profile image

      Shelley Watson 3 years ago

      Thank you for sharing more insights in Von Gogh's genius and inspirations. Up, interesting and beautiful.