Expressionism: Van Goughs Starry Night

During the Modern Era of the late 19th century and the early 20th century, many artists were turning away from the idea of painting realistic images. Photography, having just been developed for public use a few decades earlier, made artists of the day focus less on painting as an precise copy of what is seen, as had been done for centuries. Since the Middle Ages, most artists painted exact representations of life. Starting in the late 1800s, though, many artists were starting to embrace the theory of art as an impression of what is seen. Impressionism, the art movement that began in the 1870s in France, was the first real development of this new concept of painting. Impressionists, such as Claude Monet, sought to put on canvas how they saw light and nature. Unlike the artists from centuries before, the Impressionists were not interested in painting images of nobility or religion; instead they focused more on painting ordinary people and nature. Post-Impressionism, which occurred about a decade later, still used similar subject matter, however, focused more on the structure and form of the subject while still portraying the impressions of light and atmosphere on the subjects and its surroundings.

One of these Post-Impressionists was the Dutch artist, Vincent van Gogh. Van Gogh believed that art was a form of expression. Painting was an emotional and spiritual experience for him. He painted not only how he interpreted his surroundings, but his sensations and feelings on his subjects. One of his most famous paintings, The Starry Night, is a perfect representation of this Post-Impressionistic style of painting.

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With its swirling colors and lines, The Starry Night, incorporates not just the color and light that is found in the earlier works of these painters, but it shows how forms and feelings also came into play. One of van Gogh’s main beliefs was that art was a direct representation of how the artist feels. Having grown up in a very religious family, van Gogh viewed the heavens as a beautiful, living thing. His heavy brushstrokes and vivid colors portray the night sky as crazy and chaotic and the village below as peaceful and serene. Van Gogh’s troubled life, which involved many failures in life, love and business, forced him into madness, which eventually caused him to commit suicide. While the problems of his life may have caused personal trauma, the artistic importance of his insanity is overwhelming. Perhaps if he had not gone crazy, he never would have created the masterpieces that have had such an impact on art and history.
The historical significance of The Starry Night mirrors the events taking place during this era of modernity. During this time, scientists, writers and artists were seeking nontraditional ways of thinking. While scientists were learning about humans and physics in ways that had not been used before, and philosophers were finding new theories of life, writers and artists were disregarding old ways of writing and painting, and pursuing new forms of expression. Van Gogh, like his contemporaries, was ignoring the old styles of painting realistic images; instead, as portrayed in The Starry Night, he was embracing a new revolution of modernity in art. For him, art was not a black night sky over a small town; art was a personal expression of how he felt when he looked at the sky over a neighboring town. The significance of his artistic interpretation is that he was a pioneer in the modern movement of artists.