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Does famous painting show real constellations?

Jan 1, 2003

It was one of those perfect nights. No traffic and no ambient light other than the red glow from the compass as we headed for Miami from Key West. There was no moon, so nothing washed out the glittering celestial sphere.

I was standing the 1900-2300 watch, and, as the night wore on, the sky revealed itself in a manner that I had never seen before. It was March, and the Milky Way had never seemed so milky or so close. As I looked aloft I recalled Vincent van Gogh's vision of the night sky in his painting "Starry Night." As in that painting, the sky above me seemed to swirl in spiral patterns, and for the first time I actually understood what van Gogh had been driving at.

When I arrived home in New York I went to the Museum of Modern Art to examine the great painting more closely. I was curious if van Gogh had painted the positions of actual stars or if the constellation in the artwork was an artist's fantasy.

I thought about this for a long time but didn't even know where to begin searching for the information. Would an art expert know about the heavens? Would an astronomer know about art? Then one day in a computer store I found to my great surprise a CD-ROM devoted exclusively to "Starry Night." Issued by the Voyager CD publishing company and written by Albert Boime, an art historian teaching at UCLA, the CD, simply called "Starry Night," was an examination into the questions that had been troubling me about the painting.

Boime's thesis is that, despite the reputation that van Gogh was a "hallucinatory non-realistic painter," the sky depicted on the painting "Starry Night" almost exactly represents the pre-dawn sky that van Gogh saw in Saint-Rémy in June 1889.

Van Gogh spent two years institutionalized at Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, an asylum outside the small town of Saint-Rémy. In those two years he produced more than 200 paintings. It was only a few months after his release that, in 1890, he took his own life.

The cell occupied by van Gogh was on a top floor and faced east. Testing his theory, Boime consulted three members of the astronomy department at UCLA, and all agreed that the painting showed the eastern quadrant of a pre-dawn sky at about 0400. To further test his hypothesis, Boime found the latitude of Saint-Rémy and, using the date of June 19, 1889 -- the day van Gogh claimed the painting was completed -- went to the Griffith Park Observatory and Planetarium and recreated the sky at Saint-Rémy for that date. Voilà! Venus appears close to the horizon, as it does in the painting, and above it is the unmistakable asterism of Aries in the shape of a scalene triangle.

The only difference in the sky that van Gogh painted was the shape of the moon. It actually was gibbous, but van Gogh painted it as a crescent. Careful examination of the painting, though, indicates that he actually painted the crescent moon over an earlier, fuller shape that would approximate a gibbous moon. Boime's contention is that the artist, dissatisfied with the composition of the painting, substituted the more traditional crescent shape for artistic reasons.

During the time of his institutionalization, van Gogh, according to his letters to his brother Theo, was suffering from acute insomnia and was awake often in the early morning. He wrote Theo on one occasion, saying that "this morning I saw the country from my window a long time before sunrise with nothing but the morning star which looked very big."As navigators know, the "morning star" is the planet Venus. At the time of the painting Venus was completing an eight-year cycle, achieving its brightest aspect. It so dominated the pre-dawn sky that citizens of France were advised to get up early and see the show. Prior to painting "Starry Night," van Gogh had expressed an interest in astronomy and astrology, which was then experiencing a renaissance. He had previously painted the night skies in "Café Terrace by Night," and "Starry Night over the Rhone River." In both these paintings the sky is accurately depicted.So from his cell window -- complete with bars to keep him from jumping out -- van Gogh, who had written "when one experiences the stars and infinity with great vividness, then despite the routine, life becomes almost enchanted," set about painting the June pre-dawn sky over Saint-Rémy.

Apparently, even during the time of his institutionalization, van Gogh had been a great follower of scientific texts, including the work of the famous astronomer Camille Flammarion, whose book Astronomie Populaire was then at the top of the best-seller lists.

As for the serpentine swirls that seem to dominated the painting, Boime hypothesizes that they depict either a spiral nebula or a comet's tail -- two phenomena that were widely seen among the general population in the 1880s due to advances in astronomical photography.

An interesting irony is that van Gogh was born under the sign of Aries. According to astrologers, Aries is a dreaded sign, indicating passionate temper and bodily harm. How appropriate for a man who sliced off his earlobe and later ended his life with a bullet.

If any of you are fortunate enough to visit the Museum of Modern Art, go to the second floor and behold van Gogh's great vision. The bright globe to the right of the cypress tree is Venus and above it is the very distinct shape of Aries. The star Hamal is very noticeable. Beyond that, take a moment to enjoy the painting and reflect on the struggles and genius of Vincent van Gogh.


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