Van Gogh's Night Vision
For Vincent Van Gogh, fantasy and reality merged after dark in some of his most enduring paintings, as a new exhibition reminds us By Paul Trachtman
Smithsonian magazine, January 2009, Subscribe
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Van Gogh painted his iconic The Starry Night in 1889, while in an asylum in Saint-Rémy. "One of the most beautiful things by the painters of this century," he had written to Theo in April 1885, "has been the painting of Darkness that is still COLOR." (The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest / Photo John Wronn )
With his bright sunflowers, searing wheat fields and blazing yellow skies, Vincent van Gogh was fanatic about light. "Oh! that beautiful midsummer sun here," he wrote to the painter Émile Bernard in 1888 from the south of France. "It beats down on one's head, and I haven't the slightest doubt that it makes one crazy. But as I was so to begin with, I only enjoy it." Van Gogh was also enthralled with night, as he wrote to his brother Theo that same year: "It often seems to me that the night is much more alive and richly colored than the day....The problem of painting night scenes and effects on the spot and actually by night interests me enormously." What van Gogh fixed on, by daylight or at night, gave the world many of its most treasured paintings. His 1888Sunflowers, says critic Robert Hughes, "remains much the most popular still life in the history of art, the botanical answer to the Mona Lisa." And van Gogh's visionary landscape The Starry Night, done the next year, has long ranked as the most popular painting at New York City's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). This inspired the museum, in collaboration with Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum, to mount the exhibition "Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night" (through January 5, 2009). It will then travel to the Van Gogh Museum (February 13-June 7, 2009). "The van Gogh we usually think of, that painter of the most audacious, crazy,...
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