Vincent van Gogh, Self-portrait without beard, end September 1889
Vincent van Gogh wrote numerous letters to his brother Theo, to his sister and to other artists, often describing the paintings he had finished or that he was working on and frequently accompanying those letters with sketches of the paintings. It makes interesting reading, as do the comparisons between the sketches and the completed works.
Starry Night Over Rhone River
In a letter to Belgian painter Eugene Boch in October of 1888, Vincent describes the painting as "...a study of the Rhone, of the town under gaslight and reflected in the blue river. With the starry sky above -- with the Great Bear -- with a pink and green sparkle on the cobalt blue field of the night sky." In a letter to his brother Vincent refers to the two figures as “lovers”.
The foreground of the painting indicates heavy reworking with wet on wet, the sketch probably predating the rework.
In the rework, the land and the water are much less separated than shown in the sketch to Boch, the figures appear to be wading out of the water and the colours are darker. Are they escaping a sinking overturned boat? Did he rework the foreground because of some personal dark moment he was going through?
Cafe Terrace at Night:
(with detail in both above images)
Painted about the same time as Starry Night Over Rhone River, Cafe Terrace at Night is part of the star trilogy, along with Starry Night painted the next year.
It shows a cafe on one of the public squares in Arles, lit by gaslight. The cafe still exists, and has become a tourist attraction, renamed "Cafe Van Gogh." After completing the painting of the cafe terrace, Van Gogh wrote in a letter to his sister, Willemien: "It amuses me enormously to paint the night right on the spot. Normally, one draws and paints the painting during the daytime after the sketch. But I like to paint the thing immediately." He included an ink drawing of the painting.
Unlike Starry Night over Rhone River, the mood in this work appears to be cheerful, tranquil rather than of turmoil and darkness.
Starry Night was painted in June 1889 and depicts the view from the east-facing window of his asylum room at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, just before sunrise, with the addition of an idealized village. He had voluntarily admitted himself into the asylum after the breakdown that resulted in his mutilating his own ear.
In a letter to his brother, Theo, he described this painting and three others done at the same time: "...these are exaggerations from the point of view of arrangement, their lines are warped as that of old wood."
Vincent made a detailed study of the painting in pen and ink, now titled "Cypresses in Starry Night." It shows the movement in the curving textures in the sky, trees and landscape elements even more dramatically than the painting.
One art analyst, Jessica Caldarone, has interpreted the cypresses in Starry Night to represent Vincent himself, his isolation from family, friends and the artistic community just as the cypresses are isolated from the town below –
As I said, fascinating.