10 Famous Paintings You Should Know: Number 3 Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh.

Starry Night
Vincent van Gogh
Starry night by Vincent Van Gogh. 1889

What was Van Gogh‘s story?

He was the stereotypical impoverished artist that struggled his entire life and whose genius went unnoticed and un-celebrated until after his death.

Starry Night is quite famous: the vibrancy, the way the colours bounce, the fact that it moves, it almost literally looks like a sky glittering when you’re in front of it and somehow this genius captured that.

There are a lot of modern theories and stuff about Starry Night and it is said that Van Gogh could see turbulence, that he actually saw the vibrations of atoms, and that created that vibrant little brush strokes, the vibrations that are captured in his art.

You can go look at the science behind Van Gogh’s brushstrokes and turbulence Theory here: 

How many artworks did he create in his lifetime?

But for now I’d like to actually focus on the fact that of all the amazing works this prolific artist created – he created something like 5000 paintings in his short lived life, which is more than one a day for his art career.

Why is this Starry Night so famous?

I have to interject to tell you a little story: I have a brilliant little boy that came to my art school and I met him when he was about 7 and he started doing art at our art school and when he was 9.

We were doing the history of Van Gogh and I was telling them the story and how to memorize this tragic story of this artist. I had a potato, a sunflower, and a knife to kind of summarise the different phases of Van Gogh’s life. So the class did the painting, we did the workshop, we were all together, we have 35 kids doing the workshop and off he went.

The Potato Eaters by Vincent Van Gogh
Sunflower by Vincent Van Gogh
Self-portrait with a bandaged ear

After the holiday workshop he came back for his weekly art classes and he says to me “Ma’am please can I repaint Starry Night?” Now by this time I was really sick of Starry Night, I felt like I could paint it in my sleep, I’d done this workshop the entire holiday and I’d really had enough and I was excited to get back to the normal curriculum.

So, with a little bit of impatience I ask him if he really wants to repaint Starry Night – for heaven’s sake why – definitely not with enough patienc.

He said to me “I was thinking about it during this holiday and I think I finally know what Van Gogh was trying to say”, I went quiet and I realised in my soul that this is the moment I need to listen, I need to calm down and quiet my own opinions and I bent down and put my eyes in level with his and I said to him “yes, what is it?”

He says to me “you know how Van Gogh struggled with mental illness, and how depressed he was, and eventually took his own life?” – we spoke a lot about that in the workshop, and he said “I think what Van Gogh was trying to say was that the night is more beautiful than the day, that his depression is what made him brilliant, and his struggle with that and the constant seeking for light from the dark is what made him stand out”.

And I realised that this child was such a deep ancient soul, given as a gift and I thought “wow I could write a Masters on this”. 

For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.

Vincent van Gogh

Why I believe this painting is so famous.

This is why I believe that this painting is so famous, because it captures and summarises the struggle of Van Gogh. It captures and summarises the story and the fight he had with mental health.

This outcast, this outlier from society became brilliant once we were able to see through his eyes, to see the light in the darkness, and I think to me this is what Starry Night will always be to me.

There is also another big reason why Starry Night is famous and that is because this painting was given to New York at a time when Van Gogh really wasn’t famous.

They didn’t really value it at all so they kind of put it in the basement. Once Van Gogh rose to fame they realised they were the owners of this amazing painting, so they hurried around looking for Starry Night.

And we now know it’s one of the most – if not the most – visited tourist attractions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Read about other artworks in this series of 10 Famous Artworks. The Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, and the next one in the series, The Scream.