Van Gogh's Starry Night over the Rhone (Arles, 1888).

Some astronomical considerations.


Gianluca Masi and Antonella Basso


The Arles period (Feb. 1888 - May 1889) appears particularly important in the van Gogh's biography. It would be impossible to discuss it here in depth because of  its great influence both on his work and life. It should be enough to remember that van Gogh's relationship with Gauguin (who finally spent some time in Provence) reached a dramatic climax, with considerable consequences on the Dutch master. At the same time, an impressive number of immortal masterpieces was born in  the colorful southern France.

Here we wish to discuss one of them, starting from the astronomical subject, hoping that our approach will motivate similar studies.          

           The Starry Night over the Rhone comes  from the inventiveness of one of the most famous expressionist masters in a period when he was particularly attracted by the possibility to paint  en plein air. It followed the Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum at Night, where the night sky had a considerable space. However, while in the latter van Gogh was mainly interested in the gas lamps, their light and its way to lean on the surroundings and the stars were simply opposed to their artificial nature, in the work we are going to discuss the sky really plays a central role. In April 1888 van Gogh wrote to Bernard: "A starry sky, for example. See, that's a thing I'd like to try to do [...]. Yet how can I do it, unless I work it out at home, and from my imagination?". Clearly, only later he decided to to give a true to life portrayal, motivated by the possibility to deal with all the associated problems, as we read in a letter to Theo (Sept. 1888).



Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum at Night
Oli on canvas; 81 x 65,5 cm
Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo
Starry Night
Oil on canvas; 73 x 92
The Museum of Modern Art, New York



Compared with the following  - but more renowned - Starry Night (Saint-Rémy, 1889) with its glowing stars, the painting we are introducing now appears as a more realistic description of the night sky. Here the Big Dipper, surrounded by fainter stars, clearly dominates. It is know - and the following considerations will support it - that this work was painted  en plein air in Sept. 1888: so, it makes sense to wonder how van Gogh faced and solved the representation on the canvas of what he observed. He was aware to be painting the Big Dipper or - better - the Great Bear, as we read in the 28 Sept. 1888 letter to his brother Theo. Once again, the master is attracted by the contrast between the  starlight and the - violent- one coming from the gas lamps, which reflects on the river, but here the sky really plays - as we said -  a central role: probably because van Gogh knew what he was looking at  and because of his vivid interest in painting the stars (as in the letter to Bernard mentioned above). It is time to focus on the this sky; few preliminary considerations can be done at the first glance. We will discuss some geometrical aspects, connected with the position of the stars, and then few photometric ones.



The Big Dipper, as visible from Arles on 25 Sept. 1888, at local 10:30pm. Simulated with TheSky. Starry Night over the Rhone
Oil on canvas; 72,5 x 92 cm
Musée d'Orsay, Parigi


Wishing to determine when the painter did this work, one can refer to the 28 Sept. letter to Theo, the first where the master mentioned the painting. We do not find any reference to it in the previous ones, where the Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum at Night is introduced. Probably, the painting was carried out  in the time span between Sept. 20 and 30. We know that van Gogh was proud of his quick-painting ability and during the Arles period that capability was even emphasized. It is likely that the painting discussed here was ran off (au premier coup) on the canvas.

Assuming that the painting was fulfilled on 25 Sept. 1888, we realize that the Big Dipper was represented as visible around 10:30 pm. We have the sensation, however, that it was not painted  within few minutes. In fact, the two rear stars indicate a direction which is in agreement with a time following that suggested by the eastern part of the Dipper: the Alkaid-Megrez line is almost horizontal, while the Dubhe-Merak direction points to the bottom right. This direction is even in disagreement with the Alkaid-Dubhe direction, the latter being in accordance with the position of the eastern stars.

Van Gogh reported all the seven brighter stars, however slightly modifying their positions. In particular, Alioth is too close to Megrez, also resulting not aligned with the Mizar-Megrez direction. We've found Phecda quite out-of-place: the rear part of the Big Dipper should be almost  rectangular, while in the painting it shows a clear trapezoidal shape. A possible explanation, suggested by the time gap mentioned above, is that Merak was placed on the canvas about 40 minutes later than the others, followed by Phecda, probably placed looking at Dubhe and Merak, as the Dubhe-Merak-Phecda angle is correct (but Merak and Phecda are too close).

The elevation above the horizon of the Big Dipper, evaluated looking at its dimensions, is in good agreement with the latitude of Arles  (43.66° N), so van Gogh in this case has correctly evaluated the angular distances involved.

The painting offers some interesting hints from a photometric point of view too. We assumed that van Gogh used something like a "the larger, the brighter" approach. Alioth is the brighter star in nature, but the painter saw it differently. In the work the brighter objects are Megrez (actually the faintest) and Mizar, the latter painted as a quite large disk (was van Gogh seeing Alcor?). Dubhe, the alpha in the Bayer designation, is seen somewhat bright. All them show the same color, with a clear green dominant. In fact, all the seven real stars have the similar color , even if we see Dubhe slightly warm.

All around the Big Dipper there is a good number of other stars. Perhaps, some of them belong to the Big Bear and the surrounding constellations, while others come from van Gogh imagination. 

In the light of the considerations above, we can conclude that the Starry Night over the Rhone offers a realistic vision of the night sky, confirming that the great master was really out there, under the stars. 


           This work used  the image above as reference. We wish to thank David Brooks, The Vincent van Gogh Gallery, Toronto, CA


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