I’ll never forget the first time I saw Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. I was 19, and I was visiting New York for the first time.
From the moment I saw the painting, it grabbed me. At the time, I had no idea why. All I knew was that I could not stop looking at it. Thus began my lifelong fascination with van Gogh. Even before I knew of his well-documented mental illness, there was a certain ferocity — an unsettling subtext — in his work that drew me in. “The Starry Night” is a perfect example. It wasn’t enough for van Gogh to just paint stars in the sky. He had to go much further. As it says on Moma’s website:
Rooted in imagination and memory, The Starry Night embodies an inner, subjective expression of van Gogh’s response to nature. In thick, sweeping brushstrokes, a flamelike cypress unites the churning sky and the quiet village below. The village was partly invented, and the church spire evokes van Gogh’s native land, the Netherlands.
Now, I know the reason for van Gogh’s need for partial invention. He was not in the Netherlands when he painted “The Starry Night.” He was in France — and in a mental hospital (or, as they called it back then, an asylum.) He got the idea for the painting while looking out one of the asylum’s windows.
Knowing this makes me love the painting even more. Now, just as I did when I was 19, I could stare at this masterwork for a long, long time.