Listening to Art

01.03: Vincent van Gogh, Starry Night over the Rhône

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Listening to Art, by William Denton.

Volume one, number three: Starry Night Over the Rhône by Vincent van Gogh.

Hello, and welcome to Listening to Art. I’m William Denton.

This issue and the next are devoted to related paintings by the Dutch Post-Impressionist Vincent van Gogh. In this issue we’ll listen to Starry Night Over the Rhône (painted in September 1888), and in the next we’ll listen to The Starry Night (painted in June 1889), surely one of the most famous works of art in the world.

First of all, regarding my pronunciation of his family name, I am using the common North American method, which I hope will not bother anyone too much. I will include a link to the proper Dutch pronunciation in the bibliography.

Vincent van Gogh was born in the Netherlands in 1853 and died in France in 1890, aged 37, after being shot in the chest, perhaps by himself, though the circumstances are mysterious.

Early in 1888 van Gogh left Paris for Arles, in the south of France, on the Rhône River, close to the Mediterranean shore. Soon he settled into the Yellow House and urged Paul Gauguin to join him there so they could paint together. If you’ve seen his painting of a bedroom, that was in the house in Arles; if you’ve seen his painting of a postman with a great bushy beard, that postman was in Arles. Van Gogh made scores of paintings of people and places there.

One night in late September 1888 (this is before Gauguin arrived, and before the ear incident), van Gogh went out to paint the stars. Here I quote from Van Gogh: The Life, by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith (pp. 650–651):

Vincent shouldered his equipment in the middle of the night and sought his subject directly under the stars. He picked a spot only a few blocks away, on a seawall overlooking the Rhône. To provide light, he set his easel under one of the gas lamps that lined the wall along the riverbank. Experience had shown him that its golden light was inadequate, even deceptive. “In the dark I may mistake a blue for a green,” he admitted, “a blue-lilac for a pink-lilac, for you cannot rightly distinguish the quality of a hue.” But the immediacy of the image mattered more than the accuracy, he insisted. And there was no other way around “the poor sallow whitish light” of conventional night scenes.

… In June, his rocketing dreams for the combination with Gauguin had found inspiration in Daudet-inspired fantasies of train trips to distant stars and galaxies of better worlds. Now, as the prospect of Gauguin’s coming receded like the sunset, Vincent searched the night sky for an older, deeper consolation. “I have a terrible need of—shall I say the word?—religion,” he wrote, shuddering at the confession. “Then I go out at night to paint the stars.”

On or about 29 September 1888, he wrote his brother Theo:

Included herewith little croquis [a rough sketch] of a square no. 30 canvas—the starry sky at last, actually painted at night, under a gas-lamp.

This is a painting, oil on canvas, 92 cm wide by 72.5 cm high.

Now let’s listen to Starry Night Over the Rhône by Vincent van Gogh, recorded on the “Mystical Landscapes” tour while at the Art Gallery of Ontario, in Toronto, on 29 December 2016.

That was Starry Night Over the Rhône by Vincent van Gogh. I hope you enjoyed listening to it as much as I did.

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Bibliography

All web sites accessed as of 13 June 2017.