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Text by Geoffrey Smith


Arcadian Dreams / Symbolist Visions



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Vincent van Gogh: Starry Night on the Rhône 1888

Paris, Musée d’Orsay

The sight of the stars always makes me dream... Just as we take the train to go to Tarascon or to Rouen, we take death to go to a star. Vincent van Gogh – letter to his brother Theo

In February 1888, after 18 months in Paris, van Gogh arrived in Arles. He had tired of the capital and wanted to get away ‘so as not to see so many painters who disgust me as people’. The reason he chose Arles as his destination is a mystery but he seems to have conflated the south in his mind with a fantastical vision of Japan. Japonisme, the enthusiastic espousal of all things Japanese, had achieved cult status in Paris during the latter third of the 19th century and had been a major influence on contemporary artists including van Gogh. On arrival in Arles, Vincent wrote to his friend Emile Bernard that ‘this country seems to me as beautiful as Japan…’

Vincent had also formulated a vague plan to create an artists colony rather along the same lines as that at Pont-Aven in Brittany. But, in his mind, this grouping was to gather in the intense light of the south.

Vincent’s output responded to the changed conditions – the heat and the light. His palette became much more intense, his work rate was frenzied. It is these paintings created in the south, sometimes produced at the rate of one a day, which spawned his posthumous fame. His obsession with raw colour can be judged by his comments in one of his letters at this time ‘At last I have found an Arlesienne [as a model]… pale lemon background, grey face, black, black, black clothing, raw Prussian blue.’

As soon as he arrived in Arles van Gogh was writing about his wish to paint at night. In another letter to Emile Bernard, in June, he wrote ‘…when shall I ever paint the Starry Sky, this painting which keeps haunting me’. Later, in September, he finally painted the night sky over the river Rhône, the constellation of the Great Bear filling the cobalt blue void and the gas lights of Arles reflected in the waters of the great river. These reflections dominate the scene but are complemented by the spangled points of dark yellow starlight, childlike in their construction but immensely powerful as a representation of the painter’s wonder.

To capture this scene Vincent set up his easel outdoors at night. The couple in the foreground might, perhaps have been attracted to investigate this bizarre sight but their presence serves to emphasise the scale of the river and the enveloping vault of the night sky which looms above them.

In 1889 Starry Night on the Rhône was shown at the Salon des Indépendants along with Irises (painted at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence). At last his work started to gain some kind of grudging recognition among a very small group of critics, one of whom, Georges Lecomte, noted Vincent’s ‘ferocious impasto’ and intense palette. But it was not until a few months before Vincent’s death that the most prescient and enthusiastic review of his work was published by the symbolist writer and critic Albert Aurier.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Contemporary Works

1888 Emile Bernard: Harvesters (Breton Landscape), Musée d’Orsay, Paris

1888 James Ensor: The Entry of Christ into Brussels in 1889, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

1888 Paul Sérusier: The Talisman: Musée d’Orsay, Paris


Further Paintings of Interest

Church at Auvers

Vincent van Gogh

The Starry Night

Vincent van Gogh

In the Private Room at the Rat Mort

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec