"Today I mailed you a drawing;" van Gogh wrote his brother Theo from the Hague in April 1882, "the best figure I have drawn as yet . . . and as it was for you, who understands these things, I did not hesitate to make it rather melancholy." Later, he explained: "In that pale, slender woman's figure . . . I wanted to express something of the struggle for life. Or rather, because I tried to be faithful to nature as I saw it before me without philosophizing about it, involuntarily something of that great struggle is shown."
The drawing was inscribed with the word "Sorrow"; the model had been the destitute streetwalker whom van Gogh had cared for during the previous winter. So important did this drawing in the "English" style seem to him that in the fall he drew a variant of it for the second of his nine extremely rare lithographs. "You will receive," he wrote Theo, November 14, 1882, "the very first print of Sorrow." He mentions sending two other proofs "but the very first I marked as a trial copy." Only three proofs are now known -- and the the Museum of Modern Art's copy is in fact inscribed, apparently in van Gogh own hand, "épreuve d'essai."
Six years later, in 1889, van Gogh entered the hospital of Saint Pol at Saint-Rémy near Arles in southern France. He had just recently suffered serious mental attacks. For a time he seemed much better but soon his attacks began to recur. By May 1890, he wrote118 Theo from the hospital: "My surroundings here weigh on me more than I can express . . . I need air, I feel overwhelmed with boredom and depression." It was perhaps in this mood that he had painted the interminable vistas of the Hospital Corridor at Saint-Rémy.
Nevertheless it was at Saint-Rémy that van Gogh painted several of his greatest pictures, among them the Museum of Modern Art's Starry Night, done in June 1889, only a month or so after he had entered the sanitarium.
Van Gogh Starry Night is a work of crucial importance. Not only is it one of the artist's most moving and beautiful paintings but its style marks a turning point in his art, its subject was of special symbolic significance to the artist, and the struggle, internal and external, which involved the picture throws a clear light upon one of the fundamental conflicts which have engaged the artists of the past hundred years. This is the conflict between fact and feeling, between prose and poetry, between realism and imaginative vision.
In the late 1880s the impressionists, for all their free use of color, followed the factual or realist tradition in painting the everyday world around them. Opposed to them were van Gogh's friends, Gauguin and Emile Bernard, who insisted upon the right of the artist to express his feelings both in style and in subject. Theo van Gogh, though he was Gauguin's loyal and tolerant dealer, tended to side with the impressionists. We can follow the conflict in Vincent's letters to Theo van Gogh118 and Emile Bernard. 22
From Arles in April 1888 van Gogh writes to Bernard: "The imagination is certainly a faculty which we must develop and it alone can bring us to creation of a more exalting and consoling nature . . . A starspangled sky, for instance, that's a thing I would like to try to do . . . But how can I manage unless I make up my mind to work . . . from imagination?" A month later he writes again: "I wonder when I'll get my starry sky done, a picture that haunts me always." Within six months in a letter to Theo, Vincent repeats his argument: "To express hope by a star, the eagerness of the soul by a sunset radiance. Certainly there is nothing in that of . . . realism, but is it not something that exists?"
But later in September, the realist (or impressionist) point of view reasserts itself and he writes Theo: "The problem of painting night scenes . . . on the spot and actually by night interests me enormously." Before the end of the month he had done a canvas of a "starry sky painted actually at night under a gas jet." This first version of a starry night he describes to Theo with an almost Whistlerian esthetic detachment: "The town is blue and violet, the gas is yellow . . . On the blue-green field of the sky the Great Bear sparkles, its discreet pallor contrasting with the brutal gold of the gaslight."
But in the same letter, after speaking of the difficulty of painting a street scene in the spirit of the realistic novelists, Zola and Flaubert, he confesses: "That does not prevent me having a terrible need of -- shall I say the word -- of religion. Then I go out at night to paint the stars . . ." The influence of Gauguin and Bernard was at work. The two had spent the summer together in Brittany developing their "Synthetist" principles which were already tinged with the anti-realism of the Symbolist poets, particularly Mallarmé. Late in the fall of '88, while Gauguin is visiting him in Arles, Vincent writes Theo: "Gauguin gives me courage to imagine things." And, finally, summoning this new courage, he painted some six months later his second and great Starry Night.
On June 19, 1889, he writes from Saint-Rémy to Theo announcing the new picture: "I have a landscape with olive trees and also a new study of a starry sky. Though I have not seen either Gauguin's or Bernard's last canvases I am pretty well convinced that these two studies are parallel in feeling . . . When you have looked at these two studies for some time it will give you some idea, better than words could, of the things Gauguin and Bernard and I used to talk about."
But Theo after he had received the new picture was still unconvinced. He replied, October 1889: "I find that you are at your best when you do realistic things. I understand what preoccupies you in these new canvases like the village in the moonlight and the mountains, but I think these stylized researches weaken the feeling of reality. In the last lot of pictures from Gauguin I find the same preoccupation . . ."
Theo had liked the earlier night canvas with its placid feeling and impressionist technique; he had even sent it to a public exhibition. But the new Starry Night and the other pictures from Saint-Rémy had passed beyond his impressionist taste.
For it was in the Saint-Rémy pictures with their flamboyant cypresses, twisted olive trees and heaving mountains that van Gogh was finally able to free his art from the objective realistic vision of the impressionists. The surging lines not only bind the composition into active rhythmic unity -- they express magnificently the vehemence and passion of van Gogh's spirit.
The Starry Night goes further: it is fundamentally an imaginative invention. The cypress and the distant hills, it is true, occur in other Saint-Rémy pictures. But the village with its northern church -- is it English or Dutch? -- seems remote from Provence. And the sky, the dazzling moon, the Milky Way turned to meteors, the stars like bursting bombshells -- this is the unique and overwhelming vision of a mystic, a man in ecstatic communion with heavenly powers.