Listening to Art

01.04: Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night

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Listening to Art, by William Denton.

Volume one, number four: The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh.

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

This issue is the second of two devoted to the Dutch Post-Impressionist Vincent van Gogh. In the last issue we listened to Starry Night Over the Rhône, and now we will listen to the famous The Starry Night (painted in June 1889).

Starry Night Over the Rhône was painted in Arles, in the south of France, in September 1888. In October, Paul Gauguin arrived to stay and work with van Gogh, but the two often fought. On 23 December, after an argument with Gauguin, who now intended to leave soon, van Gogh cut off all or part of his left ear with a straight razor. He was in and out of the hospital and had a very difficult few months. In May 1889, aged 36, he went to the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole in Saint-Rémy, a town not far away.

In the asylum his bedroom was on the second floor. At night he was not allowed out, nor was he allowed down to his studio on the ground floor, where his paints were. In early June he wrote to his brother Theo:

This morning I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big.

This painting would have been done very soon after that. I quote again from Van Gogh: The Life, by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith (p. 760):

To paint a starry night, he could only watch from behind the bars of his bedroom window as the asylum lights blinked off, the sky darkened, and the stars assembled. He may have made drawings—and tested other, deeper inventions—while staring at the small quadrant of the eastern sky that filled his little window. Over the course of the night, he saw a waning moon and the constellation Aries, lying low in the east, just above the hilltops, its four bright stellar points arrayed in a rough arc over the faint blush of the Milky Way. In the predawn hours, Venus, the morning star, appeared prominently on the horizon, bright and white—a perfect companion to an early wakening or a sleepless night. He stared and stared at the light they each shone, and the sparkling darkness around them.

This is a painting, oil on canvas, 92.1 cm wide by 73.7 cm high.

Now let’s listen to The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh, recorded at the Museum of Modern Art, in New York City, on 16 May 2017.

Waveform of the field recording.

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

For more information and links to things I’ve mentioned, please visit

Listening to Art is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


All web sites accessed as of date of publication.

Museum of Modern Art. “The Starry Night.” Museum of Modern Art.

Naifeh, Steven and Gregory White Smith. Van Gogh: The Life. London: Profile Books, 2011.

van Gogh, Vincent. “Letter to Theo van Gogh. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, between about Friday, 31 May and about Thursday, 6 June 1889.” Vincent van Gogh Letters.

Wikipedia, s.v. “The Starry Night,”

⸻, s.v. “Vincent van Gogh,”