Continuation of previous posts Café Terrace at night, in Arles and Starry Night over the Rhône
We left Vincent Van Gogh in September 1888, after he painted his Starry Night over the Rhône in Arles. On October 23rd, Paul Gauguin joined him in the “Yellow House” which he rented and where he stayed for two months. The cohabitation between these two geniuses of painting is not easy. Apart from quarrels of a domestic nature, things went badly wrong on 23 December 1888, after a discussion on painting during which Gauguin argued that one should work with imagination, and Van Gogh with nature. According to the classical thesis, Vincent threatens Paul with a knife; the latter, frightened, leaves the scene. Finding himself alone in a fit of madness, Vincent cuts off a piece of his left ear with a razor, wraps it in newspaper and offers it to an employee of the neighbouring brothel. Then he goes to bed. The police doesn’t find him until the next day, his head bloody and confused. Gauguin explains the facts to them and leaves Arles. He will never see his friend again.
The day after his crisis, Van Gogh was admitted to hospital. A petition signed by thirty people demanded his internment in asylum or expulsion from the city. In March 1889, he was automatically interned in Arles hospital by order of the mayor while continuing to paint, and on 8 May he left Arles, having decided to undergo psychiatric treatment in the insane asylum at Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, a little south of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. He stayed there for a year (until May 1890), subject to three bouts of dementia, but between which his pictorial production was extraordinarily rich: he produced 143 oil paintings and more than 100 drawings in the space of 53 weeks.
One of the key works of this period is the Starry Night, now in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
I have always been fascinated by this nocturnal painting, with its tormented sky in the background, composed of volutes, whirlpools, huge stars and a crescent moon surrounded by a halo of light. In the background, a village with a church steeple overstretched towards the sky, which at first glance is thought to be the village of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. Due to the position of the moon, the orientation of its crescent horns and the streak of whitish mist over the hills, one does not need to be a great expert to see at first glance that the Starry Night represents a sky just before dawn. Can we go further?
In 1995, while snooping around in a bookshop in Paris, I stumbled upon a booklet entitled La Nuit étoilée: l’histoire de la matière et la matière de l’histoire. It was the French translation of an article booklet published in 1984 in the United States by Albert Boime (1933-2008), professor of art history at the University of California at Los Angeles (“Van Gogh’s Starry Night: A History of Matter and a Matter of History, Arts Magazine, December 1984).
The book is fascinating. The author raises many questions which he tries to answer, notably concerning the date of the painting’s execution and the nature of the astronomical objects represented.
I said in previous posts that Van Gogh painted from nature, and therefore intended to reproduce the night skies as he saw them at the precise moment he began his paintings. I have shown how his Café le soir (Café Terrace at night ) and his Nuit étoilée au-dessus du Rhône (Starry Night over the Rhône), painted in Arles, showed the striking realism he displayed in his pictorial transposition of the firmament. This realism is less obvious in the Starry Night of Saint-Rémy, with its immense sky full of luminous objects, this moon and these far too big stars scattered among vast swirling volutes. Could his representations of the sky have slipped from realism to the wildest imagination, or even to delirium in front of the easel, to the rhythm of his own psychic deterioration?
To answer this question, we must investigate the precise genesis of the work. If, thanks to an astronomical reconstruction, we find a sky identical or close to the one represented in the painting – as was the case with his Arlesian nocturnal works – then we will have proved the realism of the painting, in addition to having dated the sketch to the day and hour.
As we have seen in the previous post The Starry Nights of Vincent Van Gogh’s (1): Café Terrace at night, in Arles, Vincent has therefore been living in the old city of Arles since February 1888. In mid-September, after writing to his sister Wilhelmina (or Willemien according to the scripts) that he wanted “now absolutely to paint a starry sky“, he takes action in his Café Terrace, where he shows a small piece of sky dotted with a few stars of the constellation Aquarius.
A much wider sky is represented in The starry night over the Rhône, painted shortly after, at the end of September. This 72.5 cm x 92 cm canvas, now on display at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, shows in the foreground, on the bank, a couple seen from the front and moored boats. The silhouettes of roofs and bell towers stand out against the blue of the sky, the city lights reflecting on the river. Among the many stars we recognize in the center the seven stars of the Big Dipper in the constellation Ursa Major, which illuminate a sky in shades of blue. As we will see, the canvas raises more questions than the Café Terrace, due to the incompatibility between the terrestrial view and the celestial view. A detailed survey was conducted in 2012 by photographer Raymond Martinez, whose main elements I am adding here with some personal additions.
The date of execution is confirmed by a letter addressed to his brother Théo on September 29th, when he has just finished the painting of which he attaches a sketch: ”Included herewith little croquis of a square no. 30 canvas — the starry sky at last, actually painted at night, under a gas-lamp. The sky is green-blue, the water is royal blue, the areas of land are mauve. The town is blue and violet. The gaslight is yellow, and its reflections are red gold and go right down to green bronze. Against the green-blue field of the sky the Great Bear has a green and pink sparkle whose discreet paleness contrasts with the harsh gold of the gaslight. Two small coloured figures of lovers in the foreground.”
On October 2nd, 1888 he sent a slightly different sketch to his painter friend Eugène Boch, with this description: ” And lastly, a study of the Rhône, of the town under gaslight and reflected in the blue river. With the starry sky above — with the Great Bear — with a pink and green sparkle on the cobalt blue field of the night sky, while the light of the town and its harsh reflections are of a red gold and a green tinged with bronze. Painted at night. »
Now let’s look for the place where the painting was done. A sentence from the September 14th letter [Letter 678] to his sister indicates that he certainly painted it on the spot: “Now there’s a painting of night without black. With nothing but beautiful blue, violet and green, and in these surroundings the lighted square is coloured pale sulphur, lemon green. I enormously enjoy painting on the spot at night. In the past they used to draw, and paint the picture from the drawing in the daytime. But I find that it suits me to paint the thing straightaway. It’s quite true that I may take a blue for a green in the dark, a blue lilac for a pink lilac, since you can’t make out the nature of the tone clearly. But it’s the only way of getting away from the conventional black night with a poor, pallid and whitish light, while in fact a mere candle by itself gives us the richest yellows and oranges.“
By comparing the current landscape (day and night) with that of the painting, we can spot the exact positioning of the bell towers of the churches of Saint-Julien and Saint-Martin-du-Méjan, the curve of the Rhône on the surface of which, at night, are still reflected the lights of street lamps (now electric, no more gas!), and in the center, the Pont de Trinquetaille:
From this we deduce the very precise location of Van Gogh’s easel and the angle within which the terrestrial landscape is inscribed: the orientation is South-West. Continue reading →
“In which space do our dreams live? What is the dynamism of our nightlife? Is the space of our sleep really a rest area? Is it not rather an incessant and confused movement? On all these problems we have little light because we do not find, when the day comes, only fragments of night life. “
In these texts written from 1942 to 1962 (gathered in Le Droit de rêver, PUF, collection “Quadrige”, 2010), Gaston Bachelard celebrates the difficult synthesis of imagination and reflection that seems to him to guarantee, for writers as for artists such as Baudelaire and Van Gogh’s, fidelity to dreamlike values. “A Van Gogh’s yellow is like an alchemical gold, a gold butine like a solar honey. It is never simply the gold of the wheat, the flame, or the straw chair; it is a gold forever individualized by the endless dreams of genius. It no longer belongs to the world, but it is the good of a man, the heart of a man, the elementary truth found in the contemplation of a lifetime. “
In the series of notes that I begin here, I will analyze in detail the extraordinary reports that Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1889) maintained with the vision of the Provençal sky.
On February 20, 1888, aged 35, Vincent, the man from dark-heavened Northern Europe, moved to the old city of Arles, in the South of France. Although he arrived in the city by a snowy day, he discovered the Provençal light, brighting day and night. Stunned by the transparency of the firmament, he writes to his brother Theo: “The deep blue sky was spotted with clouds deeper blue than the fundamental blue of an intense cobalt, and others of a blue clearer, like the blue whiteness of the milky ways. In the background, the stars sparkled, clear, green, yellow, white, lighter pink, diamond-like diamonds. ” From then sprout in him the crazy project of painting the sky.
On April 12, he wrote to his friend the painter Émile Bernard: “A starry sky, for example, well — it’s a thing that I’d like to try to do, just as in the daytime I’ll try to paint a green meadow studded with dandelions“. He hesitates however and procrastinates, intimidated by the subject. On June 19, he expressed his hesitation to Émile Bernard: “But when will I do the starry sky, then, that painting that’s always on my mind? Alas, alas, […] the most beautiful paintings are those one dreams of while smoking a pipe in one’s bed, but which one doesn’t make. But it’s a matter of attacking them nevertheless, however incompetent one may feel vis-à-vis the ineffable perfections of nature’s glorious splendours. “
On 9th (or 10th) of July 1888 he confesses to Theo: “But the sight of the stars always makes me dream in as simple a way as the black spots on the map, representing towns and villages, make me dream“.
From word to deed takes place between 9 and 14 September. In fact, he begins on the 9th a long letter addressed to his sister Willemien: “I definitely want to paint a starry sky now. It often seems to me that the night is even more richly coloured than the day, coloured in 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 that to paint a starry sky it’s not nearly enough to put white spots on blue-black.“
He did not post it and resumed his letter on the 14th. In the meantime he painted his first starry night, the painting is called Cafe Terrace at night (currently at the Kröller-Muller Museum in Otterlo, the Netherlands):
“I started this letter several days ago, up to here, and I’m picking it up again now. I was interrupted precisely by the work that a new painting of the outside of a café in the evening has been giving me these past few days. On the terrace, there are little figures of people drinking. A huge yellow lantern lights the terrace, the façade, the pavement, and even projects light over the cobblestones of the street, which takes on a violet-pink tinge. The gables of the houses on a street that leads away under the blue sky studded with stars are dark blue or violet, with a green tree. Now there’s a painting of night without black. With nothing but beautiful blue, violet and green, and in these surroundings the lighted square is coloured pale sulphur, lemon green. I enormously enjoy painting on the spot at night“.
And on September 16th, he describes his painting to Theo more briefly: “The second [painting of this week] shows the outside of a café, lit on the terrace outside by a large gas-lamp in the blue night, with a patch of starry blue sky.represents the outside of a cafe illuminated on the terrace by a large gas lantern in the blue night. with a corner of starry blue sky. […] The question of painting night scenes or effects, on the spot and actually at night, interests me enormously.“
We know exactly where the painting was executed: Place des hommes, now renamed Place du Forum. The map of Arles in Van Gogh’s time, shown below, shows its location, as well as other intramural sites where Vincent settled to paint La Maison jaune (The Yellow House) in September 1888), the Pont métallique de Trinquetaille (the Metallic Bridge of Trinquetaille) in October 1888) and Nuit étoilée sur le Rhône(Starry Night on the Rhone), on which I will return at length in the following post.
The café, which at that time was called the Terrace, has since been renamed Café Van Gogh. Fortunately, the historic site has not been ransacked by modern constructions as is so often the case elsewhere, and even today the walker immediately recognizes the layout of the streets and buildings painted by Vincent, day and night.
Now a question that arises is: are the stars he has represented on the canvas randomly arranged, or do they correspond to a real configuration of the night sky?
In the preparatory study for the painting shown below, the sky is just sketched with wiggling lines, without any star. It is quite possible that Vincent made this study during the day .
However, in view of van Gogh’s epistolary statements, everything suggests that he wanted to show a certain realism in the pictorial transposition of the firmament seen at night. Since, according to the letter that Vincent sent to his sister Willemien, we know the date of execution (between 9 and 14 September) within a few days, it is possible to check using a reconstitution software astronomical what portion of sky was represented by Vincent, seen from the Forum Square in a direction very close to the South (this is the orientation of the street).
Let’s use the excellent Stellarium software. Position us at the GPS coordinates of the Forum Square, namely 43 ° 40 ‘39.7 “N 4 ° 37’ 37.6” E, set the date from September 9, 1888 at about 10 pm, let us look south and let the map scroll to find a stellar configuration possibly close to that of the table, between 20 and 30° of declination (such is the height of the stars represented in the table).
I once read an article (which I lost references) claiming that it is the legs of the constellation Scorpio, with the stars α (the brilliant Antares), σ, β, δ and Scorpion π. The problem is that between 9 and 14 September, the constellation Scorpio is only above the horizon until 17h UT, after it passes below and can not be seen, even at the beginning of the night which in September falls well later. Also at that time the Moon was at its first crescent in the legs of Scorpio. This is not the correct identification.
Let’s now examine the map of the sky seen between 9 and 14 September 1888 around 22h in the southern extension of the Forum Square: we see the stars of the constellation Aquarius up to magnitude 5, with its characteristic configuration shaped from Y.
I added the profile of the buildings hiding part of the field of view, traced the characteristic lines connecting the most brilliant stars, and compared with Vincent’s painting:
The identification seems pretty convincing … It also reinforces the epistolary statements in which Vincent expressed his concern to represent a real sky and not imaginary.
This will be even more spectacular in the two famous starry nights painted in Arles in 1888 and Saint-Rémy in 1889. I will analyze them in the same way in the following posts, with the key to very unexpected surprises …
I felt dizzy and wept, for my eyes had seen that secret and conjectured object whose name is common to all men but which no man has looked upon — the unimaginable universe. Jorge luis Borges, The Aleph (1949)