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11 Things You Didn't Know About The Starry Night

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Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

With its seductive swirls, intoxicating composition, and enchanting color palette, Vincent van Gogh's The Starry Night is one of the world's most beloved and well-known works of art. In its creation and eventual success, there's much more to this Starry Night than you might have known.

1. It Depicts Van Gogh’s view from an asylum.

After experiencing a mental breakdown in the winter of 1888, van Gogh checked himself in to the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum near Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. The view became the basis of his most iconic work. Of his inspiration, van Gogh wrote in one of his many letters to his brother Theo, "This morning I saw the country from my window a long time before sunrise, with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big."

2. He left out the iron bars.

Art historians have determined that van Gogh took some liberties with the view from his second story bedroom window, a theory supported by the fact that the studio in which he painted was on the building's first floor. He also left out the window's less-than-welcoming bars, a detail he included in another letter to Theo. In May of 1889, he wrote, "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."

3. The village was more creative license than reality.

From his window, van Gogh wouldn't have been able to see Saint-Rémy. However, art historians differ on whether the village presented in The Starry Night is pulled from one of van Gogh's charcoal sketches of the French town or if it is actually inspired by his homeland, the Netherlands.

4. The Starry Night may be about mortality.

The dark spires in the foreground are cypress trees, plants most often associated with cemeteries and death. This connection gives a special significance to this van Gogh quote, "Looking at the stars always makes me dream. 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."

5. This was not Van Gogh's first Starry Night.

The Starry Night that is world-renowned was painted in 1889. But the year before, van Gogh created his original Starry Night, sometimes known as Starry Night Over The Rhone. After his arrival in Arles, France in 1888, van Gogh became a bit obsessed with capturing the lights of the night sky. He dabbled in its depiction with Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum, before daring to make his first Starry Night draft with the view of the Rhone River.

6. Van Gogh considered The Starry Night a "failure."

Surveying the works that would become known as his Saint-Paul Asylum, Saint-Remy series, he wrote to Theo, "All in all the only things I consider a little good in it are the Wheatfield, the Mountain, the Orchard, the Olive trees with the blue hills and the Portrait and the Entrance to the quarry, and the rest says nothing to me."

7. Van Gogh unknowingly painted Venus.

In 1985, UCLA art historian Albert Boime compared Starry Night to a planetarium recreation of how the night's sky would have appeared on June 19, 1889. The similarities were striking, and proved that van Gogh's "morning star," as referenced in his letter to his brother, was in fact the planet Venus.

8. Van Gogh sold only one or two paintings in his life—and neither was The Starry Night.

The one known for sure to have been sold was the far lesser known The Red Vineyard at Arles, which was completed in November 1888, before the breakdown that sent him to the asylum. Belgian artist and collector Anna Boch purchased it for 400 francs at the Les XX exhibition in 1890. Today this historic painting is on display at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow. But there is evidence that van Gogh sold a second painting. In his biography of the artist, historian Marc Edo Tralbaut talked about a letter from Theo saying one of van Gogh’s self portraits found its way to a London art dealer.

9. The Starry Night was twice owned by Theo's widow.

Following van Gogh's death in 1890, Theo inherited all of his brother's works. But when he died in the fall of 1891, his wife Johanna Gezina van Gogh-Bonger became the owner of Starry Night and scads of other paintings. It was van Gogh-Bonger who collected and edited the brothers' correspondence for publication, and she is credited with building van Gogh's posthumous fame, thanks to her tireless promotions of his work and exhibitions.

In 1900, van Gogh-Bonger sold Starry Night to French poet Julien Leclerq, who soon sold it to Post-Impressionist artist Émile Schuffenecker. Six years later, she bought the painting back from Schuffenecker so she could pass it along to the Oldenzeel Gallery in Rotterdam.

10. The Starry Night now lives in New York thanks to Lillie P. Bliss.

Bliss was the daughter of a textile merchant who used her grand wealth to become one of the foremost collectors of modern art in the early 20th century. Alongside Mary Quinn Sullivan and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, she helped found Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art. Following her death in 1931, The Lillie P. Bliss Bequest turned much of her collection over to MoMA, creating the nucleus of the museum’s collection in the midst of the Great Depression. In 1941, three pieces from Bliss's impressive collection were sold so that MoMA could acquire Starry Night.

11. The lights of The Starry Night seem to flicker because of how the human brain works.

In this Avi Ofer-animated TED-Ed video, Natalya St. Clair further explains how van Gogh's painting is an accurate depiction of turbulence, "one of the most supremely difficult concepts nature has ever brought before mankind."

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Microscopic Videos Provide a Rare Close-Up Glimpse of the Natural World
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Courtesy of Nikon

Nature’s wonders aren’t always visible to the naked eye. To celebrate the miniature realm, Nikon’s Small World in Motion digital video competition awards prizes to the most stunning microscopic moving images, as filmed and submitted by photographers and scientists. The winners of the seventh annual competition were just announced on September 21—and you can check out the top submissions below.

FIRST PRIZE

Daniel von Wangenheim, a biologist at the Institute of Science and Technology Austria, took first place with a time-lapse video of thale cress root growth. For the uninitiated, thale cress—known to scientists as Arabidopsis thalianais a small flowering plant, considered by many to be a weed. Plant and genetics researchers like thale cress because of its fast growth cycle, abundant seed production, ability to pollinate itself, and wild genes, which haven’t been subjected to breeding and artificial selection.

Von Wangenheim’s footage condenses 17 hours of root tip growth into just 10 seconds. Magnified with a confocal microscope, the root appears neon green and pink—but von Wangenheim’s work shouldn’t be appreciated only for its aesthetics, he explains in a Nikon news release.

"Once we have a better understanding of the behavior of plant roots and its underlying mechanisms, we can help them grow deeper into the soil to reach water, or defy gravity in upper areas of the soil to adjust their root branching angle to areas with richer nutrients," said von Wangenheim, who studies how plants perceive and respond to gravity. "One step further, this could finally help to successfully grow plants under microgravity conditions in outer space—to provide food for astronauts in long-lasting missions."

SECOND PRIZE

Second place went to Tsutomu Tomita and Shun Miyazaki, both seasoned micro-photographers. They used a stereomicroscope to create a time-lapse video of a sweating fingertip, resulting in footage that’s both mesmerizing and gross.

To prompt the scene, "Tomita created tension amongst the subjects by showing them a video of daredevils climbing to the top of a skyscraper," according to Nikon. "Sweating is a common part of daily life, but being able to see it at a microscopic level is equal parts enlightening and cringe-worthy."

THIRD PRIZE

Third prize was awarded to Satoshi Nishimura, a professor from Japan’s Jichi Medical University who’s also a photography hobbyist. He filmed leukocyte accumulations and platelet aggregations in injured mouse cells. The rainbow-hued video "provides a rare look at how the body reacts to a puncture wound and begins the healing process by creating a blood clot," Nikon said.

To view the complete list of winners, visit Nikon’s website.

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‘American Gothic’ Became Famous Because Many People Saw It as a Joke
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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1930, Iowan artist Grant Wood painted a simple portrait of a farmer and his wife (really his dentist and sister) standing solemnly in front of an all-American farmhouse. American Gothic has since inspired endless parodies and is regarded as one of the country’s most iconic works of art. But when it first came out, few people would have guessed it would become the classic it is today. Vox explains the painting’s unexpected path to fame in the latest installment of the new video series Overrated.

According to host Phil Edwards, American Gothic made a muted splash when it first hit the art scene. The work was awarded a third-place bronze medal in a contest at the Chicago Art Institute. When Wood sold the painting to the museum later on, he received just $300 for it. But the piece’s momentum didn’t stop there. It turned out that American Gothic’s debut at a time when urban and rural ideals were clashing helped it become the defining image of the era. The painting had something for everyone: Metropolitans like Gertrude Stein saw it as a satire of simple farm life in Middle America. Actual farmers and their families, on the other hand, welcomed it as celebration of their lifestyle and work ethic at a time when the Great Depression made it hard to take pride in anything.

Wood didn’t do much to clear up the work’s true meaning. He stated, "There is satire in it, but only as there is satire in any realistic statement. These are types of people I have known all my life. I tried to characterize them truthfully—to make them more like themselves than they were in actual life."

Rather than suffering from its ambiguity, American Gothic has been immortalized by it. The country has changed a lot in the past century, but the painting’s dual roles as a straight masterpiece and a format for skewering American culture still endure today.

Get the full story from Vox below.

[h/t Vox]

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