Teach close reading skills, ekphrastic poetry, and compare and contrast with Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night
This morning I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise, with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big.
— Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to his brother Theo
It often seems to me that the night is even more richly colored than the day, colored with the most intense violets, blues and greens. If you look carefully, you’ll see that some stars are lemony, others have a pink, green, forget-me-not blue glow. And without labouring the point, it’s clear to paint a starry sky it’s not nearly enough to put white spots on blue-black.
— Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to his sister Willemien
Looking at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots representing towns and villages on a map. Why, I ask myself, shouldn’t the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France? Just as we take the train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star. So to me it seems possible that cholera, gravel, tuberculosis and cancer are the celestial means of locomotion, just as steamboats, buses and railways are the terrestrial means. To die quietly of old age would be to go there on foot.
— Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to his brother Theo
Look at The Starry Night. Before reading the excerpts above, tell students the title and ask what is going on in this picture? This painting includes a lot of details and expresses a lot of emotion. See how much students can decipher through a discussion. Encourage students to identify the evidence that supports their reasoning. Students should likewise be encouraged to share wonderings and voice confusions. As the conversation slows, explain you are going to read three excerpts that will add context to the painting. These excerpts are drawn from letters from Van Gogh to his siblings. After reading the excerpts ask how does this new insight change your understanding of the painting?
Begin with art history
Van Gogh’s work marked a significant transition in art history. Like Monet and the other Impressionists, Van Gogh liked working outdoors, painting with bright colors and broken brushstrokes. However, Van Gogh was not interested in naturalism, rendering literal impressions of a scene, or trying to capture the subtle movement of light. Instead, he painted to express his feelings. He used brush strokes to create painterly rhythms and patterns that expressed a subject’s deeper emotional state. While sharing the Impressionist’s interest in contemporary views of the world, his focus was less idyllic. He focused on the gritty and the mundane. He also expanded his perspective to include the symbolic and the spiritual. Through his intimate and personalized representations, Van Gogh appealed to the viewer’s heart, rather than their mind. That is why he is usually described as a Post–Impressionist and credited with setting the stage for Expressionism.
Van Gogh may be as well known for his impetuous temperament as he is for his artistic ability. He was too zealous to be a missionary like his minister father, and too honest and confrontational to be an art dealer like his uncles. His impetuous nature and later mental illness lead to increasingly bizarre behavior, including the now infamous episode where he cut off his ear and presented it to a neighboring brothel. While some have tied Van Gogh’s mental illness to aspects of his art, this lesson explores The Starry Night (1889) on its own expressive merits.
The Starry Night is based on Van Gogh’s direct observations from his asylum window where he voluntarily went for treatment after a mental breakdown. The Starry Night is also based on his imagination, memories, and emotions. For example, the village shown could not be seen from the window and the steeple of the church resembles those common in his native Holland, not in France. Nighttime offered Van Gogh solace and enchantment. The stars especially served as a connection to the heavens. The Starry Night was the third in a series of nocturnal paintings where Van Gogh transcribed his night visions and cosmic consciousness.
Look like an art critic
Look at The Starry Night. (This image from MoMA lets you to magnify the painting, allowing you to analyze its parts and scrutinize Van Gogh’s brush strokes.) What is going on in this picture? To encourage a focused analysis you may want to capture student responses on an anchor chart. (Possible answers: A night sky is full of stars and swirling colors. A bright yellow moon is on the top right. A dark cypress tree looms on the left, rising from the base of the picture and extending up to the top of the frame. A sleepy village snuggles into the mountainside on the bottom right. The steeple of the church juts into the sky. The horizon has a hint light, as if sunrise is not far off.)
Juxtaposition and Contrast
Point out and discuss: The juxtaposition of contrasting elements is often created deliberately in art—as well as writing and music— in order to highlight differences and accentuate certain qualities. Compare and contrast the earth-bound elements in The Starry Night with the heavenly elements. How does this juxtaposition serve the painting?
Turn, Talk, and Report Back (Possible answers: The 11 stars that dot the sky stand in direct contrast to the lights in the windows in the village. The lights in the windows are encased in building structures framed by heavy black lines that anchor them to the ground. The stars in contrast are surrounded by light fine brushstrokes that make the stars appear to spin and expand. The solid blocky shapes of the buildings likewise stand in contrast to the undulating sky that swirls with energy and color. The bright moon high in the upper right corner stands in contrast to the dark cypress tree that extends from the base of the painting. These two elements dominate the composition. The cypress is dark, heavy and looming. The moon is bright, light, and shimmering. The heaviness of the earth bound elements make the heavenly elements even more vibrant, dynamic, and enchanting.)
Point out and discuss: The use of contrast can also be seen in Van Gogh’s use of near-complimentary colors. Colors that sit opposite each other on the color wheel are considered to be complementary colors. For example blue and yellow. When these colors are blended they cancel each other out and create a grey scale color like white or black. When they sit next to each other, especially when they are saturated, they make each other more vibrant. By layering the colors, rendering them as saturated brush strokes, and by layering dark colors next to light colors, Van Gogh heightened this effect. This makes the stars and the swirling sky vibrate. This is in contrast with the coloring of the landscape, where Van Gogh uses more soothing analogous colors (colors next to each other on the color wheel such as blue, blue-green, green) and shades of colors. (Use the magnifying glass to analyze how brushstrokes are layered.) How does this color treatment serve The Starry Night?
Turn, Talk, and Report Back (Possible answers: The analogous colors used in the landscape bring a calm soothing mood to the sleeping village while the near-complimentary colors, or opposite colors, make the sky vibrate. The heavens are depicted as dynamic and full of energy. This reflects Van Gogh’s enchantment with the heavens.)
Balance and Rhythm
Point out and discuss: Balance and rhythm in a painting, as it does with music and literature, instills a harmony to the composition. Balance provides a sense of stability and can be achieved by creating a feeling of equal weight. Rhythm is a type of movement in a work of art. It can be achieved by repeating shapes, colors, and the alternating of lights and darks. The Starry Night composition relies on both of these principles of design. Where do you see balance and rhythm in The Starry Night and how do they serve the painting?
Turn, Talk, and Report Back (Possible answers: The varying intensity of the 11 stars and moon create an asymmetrical balance in the sky. The repeated shapes of the stars create a regular dot-to-dot rhythm across the canvas. The short light and dark brushstrokes that create the swirling atmosphere and the dawning light on the horizon creates an undulating rhythm across the canvas. The short dark horizontal lines of the roof tops likewise create a rhythm across the bottom of the composition. The bright moon and the dark cypress are two major elements that balance the canvas left to right. This pattern is repeated by secondary elements in the opposite direction. The brightest star with the white halo (actually Venus) on the left balances off the dark hill on the right edge of the composition. The balance and regular rhythms create a soothing coherent landscape. The stars and swirling atmosphere make the heavens feel complete, full of brilliance, energy, and wonder.)
Think like an artist
The Starry Night and Van-Gogh’s sad story have touched many people, including other artists. Noted writers and pop culture icons have responded with ekphrastic writing – a literary description of or commentary on a visual work of art.
- Poet Anne Sexton was inspired by the painting to write her poem The Starry Night.
- Poet and rapper Tupac Shakur responded to The Starry Night with his own Starry Night lyrics and video
- Poet, translator, and teacher, William Dewitt Snodgrass’ Not For Specialists includes the poem Van Gogh: The Starry Night.
- Singer-song writer Don McLean launches his tribute song Vincent with “Starry, starry night, Paint your palette blue and gray.” This video (3:58) lays the lyrics to that song over related paintings.
- Robert Fagles’ I, Vincent is an entire volume of poetry inspired by the Van Gogh’s paintings, including one poem called The Starry Night.
- This video clip from the television series Doctor Who brings Van Gogh to the present day to see his paintings on display. While less conventional, the gallery director’s monologue echoes the sentiments above.
Visual works of art have inspired ekphrastic poetry. This process could work the other way as well. A poem or song could inspire visual self-expression. Some contend that Van Gogh’s The Starry Night may itself have been inspired by Walt Whitman’s writing. What art moves you to self-expression? And, what art form would you work in to express those feelings? To lay the groundwork for such an effort, discuss the writings that inspire you and the essence of that writing that you would want to visually depict.
Look beyond the bars that block your view. Van Gogh found inspiration in the view from his asylum. But to do so he had to look beyond the bars that blocked his view. As he explained in a letter,
Through the iron-barred window, I can see an enclosed square of wheat . . . above which, in the morning, I watch the sun rise in all its glory.
Van Gogh’s view was not only constrained by bars, but also by the anxieties surrounding his mental illness and his inability to break through as a revenue-generating artist. Van Gogh only sold one painting in his lifetime. Even with these constraints, Van Gogh persevered to depict the beauty he saw. To riff on Robert Kennedy’s famous quote, creatives need to look at things that they could be and say, why not.
- The unexpected math behind Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” (4:38)- Natalya St. Clair illustrates how Van Gogh captured fluid movement and light in his work.
Integrating into Your Curriculum
Artists oftentimes use common visual strategies or signposts to alert viewers to significant details in their art. Here are some ideas for using these visual signposts to unpack a work of art. Remember, the close reading skills in art appreciation are similar to the close reading practices taught in reading.
Literature Link: What piece of literature would you partner with The Starry Night? You might want to consider a writer Van Gogh respected—Walt Whitman. In a letter to his sister Van Gogh wrote,
Have you read the American poems by Whitman? I am sure Theo has them, and I strongly advise you to read them, because to begin with they are really fine, and the English speak of them a good deal. He sees in the future, and even in the present, a world of healthy, carnal love, strong and frank—of friendship—of work—under the great starlit vault of heaven a something which after all one can only call God—and eternity in its place above this world. At first it makes you smile, it is all so candid and pure; but it sets you thinking for the same reason. The “Prayer of Columbus” is very beautiful.
- Whitman’s aforementioned Prayer for Columbus reflects their shared intensity and spirituality.
- Whitman’s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d expresses the same cosmic consciousness and links stars, death and immortality.
- Whitman’s Song of Myself (note section 21) describes the harmonious, even sensual, union of heaven and earth.
Writing opportunity: ekphrastic poetry. The ekphrastic writing referenced in the Think Like an Artist section offers a writing opportunity. Read a few of these poems as a model, then write an ekphastic poem or rap about another Van Gogh painting. This can be done as a small-group or whole-class project with students brainstorming descriptive phrases. Note that Robert Fagles wrote about many Van Gogh poems. By coordinating the selection of the Van Gogh painting with one he wrote about could offer an opportunity to compare and contrast poems.
How would you use this painting to elaborate on one of your units of study? Please share if you have other ideas on how to teach Van Gogh’s The Starry Night as an English/language arts lesson plan.