On a Starry Night

“Someday death will take us to another star”
Vincent Van Gogh


The Starry Night, Vincent Van Gogh, 1889


De sterrennacht (Starry Night) is a painting by the Dutch post-impressionist artist Vincent van Gogh. Painted in June 1889, it depicts the view outside of his sanitarium room window at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence (located in southern France) at night, although it was painted from memory during the day.


The drawing Cypresses in Starry Night, a reed pen study executed by Van Gogh after the painting in 1889.


In a letter written to Émile Bernard in April 1888, Van Gogh expressed his desire to paint the night sky, and questioned whether he could achieve his intention by painting from nature as the Impressionists did:

“The imagination is certainly a faculty which we must develop and it alone can bring us to creation of a more exalting and consoling nature … A star-spangled sky, for instance, that’s a thing I would like to try to do … But how can I manage unless I make up my mind to work … from imagination?”

In September 1888, before his December breakdown that resulted in his hospitalization in Arles, he painted Starry Night Over the Rhone. Working by night under a gas lamp, Van Gogh painted this work (seen at left) directly from nature. Van Gogh wrote about this painting:

“… it does me good to do what’s difficult. That doesn’t stop me having a tremendous need for, shall I say the word – for religion – so I go outside at night to paint the stars.’


Starry Night Over the Rhone, 1888


In May 1889, Van Gogh decided to enter the asylum at Saint-Rémy, where he stayed for the next year. His time there was very productive, although interrupted by incapacitating nervous attacksInspired by the landscape surrounding the asylum, he painted Starry Night in June 1889. Unlike the earlier Starry Night Over the Rhone, the new night scene was painted in daylight, from memory. In mid-September 1889, following a heavy crisis which lasted from mid-July to the last days of August, he thought to include Starry Night in the next batch of works to be sent to his brother, Theo, in Paris. In order to reduce the shipping costs, he withheld three of the studies, including Starry Night. These three went to Paris with the shipment that followed. When Theo did not immediately report its arrival, Vincent inquired again and finally received Theo’s commentary on his recent work.

The center part shows the village of Saint-Rémy under a swirling sky, in a view from the asylum towards north. The Alpilles far to the right fit to this view, but there is little rapport of the actual scene with the intermediary hills which seem to be derived from a different part of the surroundings, south of the asylum. The cypress tree to the left was added into the composition. Of note is the fact Van Gogh had already, during his time in Arles, re positioned Ursa Major from the north to the south in his painting Starry Night Over the Rhone.

In a letter to his brother Theo, Van Gogh wrote of it:

“At last I have a landscape with olive trees, and also a new study of a starry sky. … It’s not a return to the romantic or to religious ideas, no. However, by going the way of Delacroix, more than it seems, by color and a more determined drawing than trompe-l’oeil precision, one might express a country nature that is purer than the suburbs, the bars of Paris.”


Sketch of the Whirlpool Galaxy by Anglo-Irish astronomer Lord Rosse in 1845, 44 years before Van Gogh’s painting



Life, Death and a Wisp of Smoke

“As we advance in life it becomes more and more difficult, but in fighting the difficulties the inmost strength of the heart is developed.”



“What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?”



“In an artist’s life, death is perhaps not the most difficult thing.”



“There may be a great fire in our hearts, yet no one ever comes to warm himself at it, and the passers-by see only a wisp of smoke”.

“The best pictures are always those one dreams of when one is smoking a pipe in bed, but which never get done. But still one ought to try, however incompetent one may feel before the unspeakable perfection and radiant splendour of nature.”


Quotes and paintings by Vincent Van Gogh

Symbols of the Transcient of Life

Composition with Skulls, 1908


Skulls, Urchins and Lamp on a Table, 1943


Skulls and Leeks, 1945


Black Jug and Skull, 1946


Skulls, traditional symbols of the memento mori in Western art history, fascinated Pablo Picasso throughout his life. Throughout World War II in occupied Paris, Picasso produced many skulls and still lifes that captured the tense and uncertain mood of the city. While they may represent allegories of human mortality in art, the immediacy of Picasso’s paintings and sculptures transform his skulls into poignant emblems of human vulnerability, death, and the senseless destruction of war.


Skull, 1943


Picasso created Skull during the Nazi occupation of Paris, which he may have modeled off of skulls kept in his studio as many artists did, such as Paul Cézanne who stored several on his mantelpiece.


Naturaleza muerta Vanitas (Still-life Vanitas), Antonio de Pereda, 1650/1660


Along with Cézanne, Picasso must have drawn inspiration from Antonio de Pereda’s Vanitas (1660) paintings, in which the artist has rendered the bone structure of carefully crafted craniums in a meticulous manner. These skulls are but sober reminders of the body’s demise and universal symbols of the expiration of man’s existence and the transience of life, which Picasso has rendered in his own inimitable fashion.

The Only Laughter to Still Make Sense

Skull, Candlestick and Book, c. 1866


Still Life Skull and Waterjug, c. 1870


Still Life with Skull, 1898


Pyramid of skulls, c.1900


The Three Skulls, c.1900


Three Skulls on a Patterned Carpet, c.1900


Working in isolation in the last decade of his life, Paul Cézanne frequently alluded to mortality in his letters: “For me, life has begun to be deathly monotonous”; “As for me, I’m old. I won’t have time to express myself”; and “I might as well be dead.” It is possible that the death of his mother on October 25, 1897—she had been a protective and supportive influence—accelerated his meditations on mortality, a subject which had obsessed the artist since the late 1870s, but did not find pictorial form for another twenty years.


Young Man With a Skull, 1896-98


Cézanne’s interest in the subject may have had roots in thoughts other than the contemplation of death. He could have been drawn to the skulls’ volumetric forms, just as he was to those of fruits and vases, and he supposedly exclaimed “How beautiful a skull is to paint!” They also share physical similarities with his self-portrayals: “the skulls confront the viewer straight-on in a manner reminiscent of the artist’s portraits.” There would have been further reason for the subject to interest Cézanne: skulls were prominent in the homes of Catholics, and Cézanne was a devout Catholic knowledgeable in ancient Christian texts. Human skulls had also long been common accessories in artists’ studios. Indeed, the contents of Cézanne’s studio were known to include “three skulls, (and) an ivory Christ on an ebony cross” near one another on the mantelpiece.

Joachim Gasquet, a friend of the artist, later recalled “on his last mornings he clarified this idea of death into a heap of bony brain pans to which the eye holes added a bluish notion. I can still hear him reciting to me, one evening along the Arc River, the quatrain by Paul Verlaine:

“For in this lethargic world
Perpetually prey to old remorse
The only laughter to still make sense
Is that of death’s heads.”

Immortalizing Mortality and the Ages of Life

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players,
They have their exits and entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then, the whining schoolboy with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden, and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice
In fair round belly, with good capon lin’d,
With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws, and modern instances,
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose, and pouch on side,
His youthful hose well sav’d, a world too wide,
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again towards childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

William Shakespeare


Andy Warhol, Skulls, 1976-1977



Andy Warhol had bought a skull at a flea market in Paris, France, around 1975 and when he came back to New York, started the Skulls series. Warhol was encouraged to developing the series by his business manager Fred Hughes who reminded him that artist such as Francisco de Zurbarán and Pablo Picasso had used that object with great expressive effect.

In this work of art, supposedly by chance, the shadow did get the shape of a baby’s head, and after Warhol noticed that coincidence, he compared that paintings as a representation of the ages of life.

Principal to Andy Warhol’s reputation as the most significant and influential visual artist of the later Twentieth Century is his obsession with the iconic and with death, and his revolution in image repetition. More than any others, these are the features that inspired his artistic canon and thereby changed western visual culture. It is difficult to conceive of a more concentrated manifestation of these characteristics than the present work: ten individually stunning canvases that repeatedly represent the icon of the skull; the literal multiplication of death.

Andy Warhol and The Nothingness Himself

“Some critic called me the Nothingness Himself and that didn’t help my sense of existence any. Then I realized that existence itself is nothing and I felt better. But I’m still obsessed with the idea of looking into the mirror and seeing no one, nothing.”

Andy Warhol

The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B & Back Again)


Andy Warhol, Self-portrait with Skulls, 1977

A Paradoxical Identification

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

William Shakespeare

Hamlet, 1,5, 166-167


Arturo Rivera, Hamlet, 1997


Arturo Rivera (Mexico City, 1945), often manifest in his paintings through an exceptional creature, the androgyne, a unit having the characteristic of both the male female sex.

Androgyny is totality. Its clearest manifestation appears in Hamlet, 1997 portrait of a beautiful actress in the role of a prince, a paradoxical identification.

Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet

Sketch for a poster of Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet, by Alphons Marie Mucha, 1899


Definitive version of the poster illustrated by Mucha, 1899


Mortimer, Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet. New York World, June 18, 1899


Bernhardt on stage playing the role of the tragic Prince of Denmark. The costume she did wear was possibly designed by Mucha himself

Hamlet’s Existential Anguish

Eugène Delacroix, Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard, 1839


This is an artistic rendering of Act Five, Scene One of William Shakespeare‘s masterpiece. Hamlet, accompanied by Horatio, meditates on the frailty of human existence as he waits for his fiancée’s funeral procession.


Eugène Delacroix was forty-one when this was completed and was at the height of his career. He had exhibited his Medea in the prior year and created a sensation at the Salon. Delacroix produced several works based on this scene to explore Hamlet’s existential anguish.

To Be or Not to Be (The Melancholy Dane)

“To be, or not to be” is the famous opening phrase of a soliloquy in William Shakespeare‘s play Hamlet. Debate surrounds its meaning, and that of the speech, but most agree that it asks the fundamental question “why live?” and gives the desolate answer that death might be worse.

Hamlet speaks this on his entry to Act 3 scene 1 (known as the ‘nunnery scene’ because of the Hamlet/Ophelia dialogue after the speech) which is when Polonius and Claudius put into effect their plan, hatched in Act 2 scene 2, to watch Hamlet with Ophelia to determine whether, as Polonius thinks, his ‘madness’ springs from “neglected love”. They have planted her where it is his habit to walk and think and concealed themselves to observe the encounter. Until he notices Ophelia at the end of the speech Hamlet thinks he is alone.


Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet, with Yorick’s skull. Photographer: James Lafayette, c. 1885–1900)


John Barrymore in the greatest success of his theatrical career with Hamlet in 1922, which he played on for 101 performances as the Melancholy Dane, breaking Booth’s record. In February, 1925 he successfully presented his production in London despite the so-called apathy extended toward American Shakespearean actors in Britain.


Laurence Olivier’s 1948 moody black-and-white Hamlet won best picture and best actor Oscars, and is still, as of 2013, the only Shakespeare film to have done so. His interpretation stressed the Oedipal overtones of the play, and cast 28-year-old Eileen Herlie as Hamlet’s mother, opposite himself, at 41, as Hamlet.


The great Shakespearean actor Sir John Gielgud (who played Hamlet over 500 times in six productions), his protégé Kenneth Branagh and Sir Derek Jacobi in a BBC radio production of Hamlet .