Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night
New York, NY
September 21, 2008-January 5, 2009
Van Gogh depicted the night throughout his career. Painting in the dark was a challenging problem in the late nineteenth century, particularly for an artist who relied on his powers of observation; Van Gogh admitted to being unable to work strictly from imagination. But he was also an artist for whom the real was intertwined with the symbolic, and who set out to capture the spiritual qualities he sensed in the world around him. It was during the night hours that his experiments with imagination and memory went the farthest.
Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night examines Van Gogh’s nocturnal interiors and landscapes, which often combine with other longstanding themes of his art–peasant life, sowers, wheatfields, and the encroachment of modernity o the rural scene. This exhibition includes paintings, drawings, and letters from all periods of his career, as well as well as examples of the rich literary sources that influenced his work in this area.
Van Gogh did not pursue a career as an artist until 1880, when he was twenty-seven years old. Many of his earliest paintings portray the effects of aerial light, particularly around sunset, on the landscape of Brabant, the region in the southern Netherlands where he was born. In these works the artist aligned himself with the centuries-old traditions of night scenes and Dutch landscape painting, typified by seventeenth-century masters such as Rembrandt and Jacob van Ruisdael, respectively. In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, nocturnal landscapes were favored by the Barbizon painters in France, such as Charles Daubigny and Jules Dupré, whom Van Gogh greatly admired. At first a devotee of their effets de soir, or “evening effects,” Van Gogh soon fashioned his own approach, modernizing the genre with his striking use of color and rhythmic brushstroke.
Van Gogh believed that rural laborers stood closer to nature than other people, and were more strongly linked to the cycles of life. Between 1883 and 1885, while living with his parents in Brabant, he made a series of paintings and drawings describing the humble life of the peasants there. One of these was The Potato Eaters, which depicts a family gathered around their evening meal. His first significant interior night scene, it is also widely accepted as his first major canvas. To make it he returned regularly to the home of a local family and sketched them at dinner. He made one large study, from which he printed a lithograph, and a series of studies of figures and heads before starting the final composition. The Potato Eaters was immediately followed by The Cottage, a painting of one of the region’s modest rural homes, again depicted in the evening. Van Gogh’s affection for such dwellings, which he called “human nests,” would be evident in his work until the end of his life. In 1890, during a spell of homesickness in Saint-Rémy, in the South of France, he considered producing another version of The Cottage, but it never materialized.
Sowers and Wheatfields
In February 1888, Van Gogh moved to Arles, a Provençal town in the South of France. Here he adopted a more vibrant palette, moving away from closely representational painting toward a more poetic, associative approach. He was fascinated by the effects of the southern light at different times of day, and in several paintings he combined scenes of peasants sowing or harvesting wheat with the cool tones of twilight, or with the ambers and golds of a large sun nearing the horizon. For Van Gogh, the endless flow of days and the cycle of sowing and harvesting functioned symbolically as metaphors for the eternal cycle of life and death. It was in working through this theme that he began to come closer to his mature style, honing his use of complementary colors, such as violet and yellow, and embracing the stylistic elements of Japanese woodblock prints, which he had viewed with enthusiasm in Paris over the previous two years. In one of his many letters, Van Gogh wrote that he was delighted with “the limpidity of the atmosphere and the gay color effects” of Arles, which to him seemed to be “as beautiful” as those images of Japan
Poetry of the Night: The Town
Van Gogh looked hard at the world around him, and his depictions of night extended to the after-dark entertainments of urban life, such as cafés and dance halls. In The Night Café, for example, he observed the listless patrons of a bar underneath the harsh glare of gas lamps at night. Yet he was still preoccupied with nature, and after finishing The Night Café he wrote to his sister Wil, “I definitely want to paint a starry sky now.” He had expressed this aspiration in letters throughout 1888, but the painting had not yet materialized. Eventually he had the idea of setting up his easel under the outdoor gas lamps of an Arles café, which lit the canvas enough for him to paint a street scene below twinkling stars. Twelve nights later, emboldened by the results of this endeavor, Van Gogh embarked on his seminal painting The Starry Night over the Rhône, which features a vast expanse of night sky in the upper half of the canvas.
Poetry of the Night: The Country
Van Gogh’s interest in working from both observation and imagination fused in the night scenes he made in 1889 and 1890. Among these was The Starry Night, the culmination of his intense effort to conquer the problems of using color to depict darkness, as well as to register the spiritual and symbolic meanings that he saw in the nighttime hours. The Starry Night has become an iconic image, an emblem not only of Van Gogh’s own work but of modern art in general. It shows a fantastical sky above a town and hills lit only by the stars and moon—which, however, are vibrant and alive. The little village and the hills beyond were inspired by Saint-Rémy and the nearby Alpilles mountain range, but were not modeled on them closely, and the cypress trees and the thickly painted, swirling astral sky came out of Van Gogh’s imagination. In the open night skies Van Gogh perceived formidable forces of nature, capable of providing consolation amid life’s daily adversities and of evoking eternity. In September 1888 he had written of “a tremendous need for, shall I say the word—religion—so I go outside to paint the stars.”