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Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night: Symbolism and Iconography - Part 2

Updated on April 29, 2015

Van Gogh indulges in the activity of capturing with memory, observing and translating thoughts into visual abstract art. He is a transformational artist who turns abstract ideas into visual context. An example that epitomizes such an observation is evident in Van Gogh’s sketches and illustrations of the hospital of Saint Paul de Mausole at SaintRemy. Once van Gogh’s memory and observations are combined together, they yield a masterpiece that is as artistic and sublime as Starry Night (Dahlan, 2013).

The imagery used in Starry Night arguably originates from other poems by Whitman, particularly Columbus poems. In van Gogh’s painting there is an allusion to Whitman's From Noon the Starry Night (1881). Columbus poems such as "Passage to India" and "The Prayer of Columbus", which Van Gogh recommended to his sister as mentioned earlier, reveal more about the painting's imagery and explain it more meticulously than any current interpretations.

Van Gogh's deadened village; the position of the cypress on the left side of the composition and the village on the right; the opposing patterns of lines, the swirls, and complete circles; and the fraternal betrayal theme that is mentioned implicitly in the biblical allusion of the painting's eleven stars are all indications to Whitman in a way that suggests that Van Gogh's quotation from Whitman is not restricted only to his title. As a matter of fact "Starry Night" is a brilliant pictorial summary of the American poems by Whitman. As van Gogh said, it is literally the "poetic subject" because it is informed by the central themes and images of the poet of the original Starry Night. The position of the cypress again indicates van Gogh’s forsaking of interpreting his environment through the lenses of organized religion; rather, he seeks truth and the divine through the natural world. Thus, Van Gogh's cypress indicates that the linear town of "Starry Night" does not represent the pilgrim's goal. Instead it refers to the cost of spiritual discipleship. In other words it represents the life that must be abandoned by those who are seeking immortality. The cypress is stretching the branches to the stars above it - Ad astera per aspera.

Van Gogh's cypress is clearly distanced from the earthly sphere of his town and struggles to reach the circular symmetry and luminance of the sky. Conversely, the upright steeple of the village church, the tree's right-most bough shows a lack of flexibility as it were under some magnetic pressures that draws it towards the sun and the moon. The next branch draws our attention to the next largest star, and every other branch is tipped by a lesser light in the constellation of stars.

In "Passage to India", Whitman hopes for the achievement of a "mental and moral orb" - an attitude that should be equal to the perfect physical orb discovered by Columbus georaphically. Thus, he anticipates an end to all human "separations and gaps," he prophesies a final fulfillment of Columbus's dream of a world "hook'd and link'd together". It is obvious at this point why the story of Joseph and his brothers evoked by the eleven stars in Van Gogh's sky is relevant. It strikes a chord with the quotation from Whitman in the painting's title. The biblical story of Joseph is also about social bonds and man’s hope for a world without conflicts. It also highlights the inevitable need for human brotherhood which leads to Whitman's "passage to more than India":

Reckoning ahead O soul, when thou, the time achiev'd,

The seas all cross'd, weather'd the capes, the voyage done,

Surrounded, copest, frontest God, yieldest, the aim attain'd,

As fill'd with friendship, love complete, the Elder Brother found,

The Younger melts in fondness in his arms.

There are too many coincidences at the level of words, imagery, and themes which establish many links between Van Gogh's "Starry Night" and the celestial navigations laid out in Whitman's Columbus poems. It would not be then wise to dismiss them as a mere coincidence. The iconography and composition of "Starry Night" strengthens the implicit indications of Van Gogh's title in a way that explains his ambiguous description of the painting as a "poetic subject." (Schwind, 1985).

In the end, it is evident that religious themes are embedded in van Gogh’s Starry Night except in a different way. The old way of painting that van Gogh has abandoned as he abandoned organized religion is what he called “raping nature” for which he had criticized his friends Bernard and Gouguin in their portrayal of religious figures or themes such as Jesus and Agony. Van Gogh had started to experience the spiritual world through the starts which had given him comfort and inspiration. Unlike the rigid upright church steeple, van Gogh is reaching out to the stars. His perception of the natural world was influenced immensely by Whitman’s poetry. The themes raised in Whitman’s poems are found in van Gogh’s Starry Knight in a way that casts away all doubts that it is a mere coincidence.

The importance of the connection between man and nature and the need for brotherhood as an instance are themes that van Gogh managed to reify in a pictorial form. Most importantly, not only did he represent Whitman’s ideas in his masterpiece, but he was also able to express his internal struggle with the religious beliefs that he was trying to shake loose of in order to experience the natural world in an unadulterated way. He was able to capture the complexity of the social world and then put it on canvas through different combinations of objects and spaces such as the church steeple overwhelmed by the cypress and through the use of new colors that carry spiritual connotations such as the citron-yellow which he used for stars after it has been used to determine the figure of Jesus. He had managed to create his own spiritual world with his art.


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