Teaching ideas: The Starry Night

The Starry Night (1889)

This morning I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise, with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big,” wrote Van Gogh to his brother Theo, describing his inspiration for one of his best-known paintings, The Starry Night (1889). The window to which he refers was in the Saint-Paul asylum in Saint-Rémy, in southern France, where he sought respite from his emotional suffering while continuing to make art.

Van Gogh often painted scenes from the world around him. But rather than depicting reality, he drew inspiration, largely from his imagination and memory. He wrote about his fascination with the night sky stating, it often seems to me that the night is much more alive and richly colored than the day.

What’s remarkable about The Starry Night is the depiction of the sky itself. We have an intensely turbulent, vibrant, excited, agitated night sky. The stars have radiating concentric rings of light. The moon has the same set of rings around it. And also they’re set in the sky, which is not like the sky that we look up into at night. But one in which the various blues that van Gogh uses, are positioned into these swirling patterns. The village below is Saint-Remy in the south of France. Van Gogh spent a year in a mental hospital there, making more than 150 paintings depicting the hospital grounds and surrounding landscape. One would be able to speculate, rather than being a portrait of what one might see looking at a night sky in the summer of 1889. It’s much more an expression of the turmoil in the artist’s own imagination that he’s projecting on to that sky. With this painting one realizes that part of the reason for its status as such a treasure and the way it’s beloved by so many people has to do with van Gogh’s way of touching one’s emotions.

Although The Starry Night was based on the view of the surrounding hills from his barred asylum window, much of the composition was imaginary, including the view of the town and, most likely, the cypress tree. It was moving to grab the bars and think, this is the sight that inspired him to paint The Starry Night, a picture that is so hopeful and spiritual—in great contrast to the prison-like setting he was confined to.

This mid-scale, oil-on-canvas painting is dominated by a moon- and star-filled night sky. It takes up three-quarters of the picture plane and appears turbulent, even agitated, with intensely swirling patterns that seem to roll across its surface like waves. It is packed with bright orbs—including the crescent moon to the far right, and Venus, the morning star, to the left of center—surrounded by concentric circles of radiant white and yellow light.

The Starry Night is based on Van Gogh’s direct observations as well as his imagination, memories, and emotions. The steeple of the church, for example, resembles those common in his native Holland, not in France. The whirling forms in the sky, on the other hand, match published astronomical observations of clouds of dust and gas known as nebulae. At once balanced and expressive, the composition is structured by his ordered placement of the cypress, steeple, and central nebulae, while his countless short brushstrokes and thickly applied paint set its surface in roiling motion. Such a combination of visual contrasts was generated by an artist who found beauty and interest in the night, which, for him, was “much more alive and richly colored than the day.”

“Be clearly aware of the stars and infinity on high. Then life seems almost enchanted after all. ”

— Vincent van Gogh

Teaching through the Arts ideas:

  • Invite students to research images and information about Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh’s mental illnesses and inner-ear issues made him feel dizzy much of the time. These medical challenges most likely led him to use the thick swirling blobs of paint found on many of his most famous masterpieces.
  • Ask students “What do you notice about this painting?” and engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led).
  • In this painting the sky is deep, dark blues and yellows swirling around stars and a moon. Van Gogh’s paint was very thick, and he used a technique called impasto.
  • Demonstrate to the students how to make shades and tints of colors by painting a picture similar to the “The Starry Night.” Remind the students about the primary colors such as blue.
  • Students can do something similar with crayons, colored pencils, oil pastels or anything they like, even a collage.

Get inspired of the following art projects:


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