Painted in a small cell in an asylum in Saint-Remy-de-Provence, Vincent Van Gogh's magisterial "Starry Night" (1889) is perhaps the most celebrated of the many paintings that chart his compressed and compelling career. The hospital of St. Paul-de-Mausole, at one time a medieval French monastery, offered the Dutch artist a refuge after the crushing disappointments of bleak months spent in nearby Arles. Van Gogh (1853-1890) had been abandoned in Arles by his fellow painter, Paul Gauguin. His ambition of founding a studio in the South of France had collapsed, and with it his dream of a utopian brotherhood of modern painters who shared his belief that art could offer an embodiment of hope amid the drudgeries of modern life.
The intensity of Van Gogh's messianic vision, and the restorative powers he sought, and found, in his painting, underlie the deeply expressive character of many of his late works, especially "Starry Night."
Van Gogh once described the hushed hours of the night as being "more alive and richly colored than the day," and he resolved early on to use vibrant color to capture the depth and stilled poetry of its darkness. A tradition of twilight and nocturnal scenes, well established in 17th-century Netherlandish art, had inspired such dark, earlier Dutch masterpieces as his "Potatoes Eaters," and it resonated as well in the brilliant, gas-lit cafes and moon-lit city streets Van Gogh painted in France. Likewise, the scale and format of many Baroque Northern landscapes -- in which expansive, panoramic skies dwarf the human subject and imbue nature with a profound spiritual significance -- provided a vision of landscape he carried with him to Provence. And in the image of a sweeping, illuminated night sky unleashed across a narrow band of shaded ground, a subject that reaches its plentitude at St.-Remy, Van Gogh created not only a composite memory of his artistic heritage but his own evocation of an "exalting and consoling nature," as he described it, that transcended it as well.
From the barred window of his makeshift studio, Van Gogh had no view of the landscape surrounding the asylum. Uncharacteristically, he summoned his imagination instead, painting an ecstatic vision of the village under a fulgent canopy of stars and a crescent moon. A deep blue backdrop of mountains rises to an undulating crest at right, gathering momentum from the repeated, curved strokes of the painter's brush that measure the tsunami-like swells. These mountains bear little relation to the stony range of the Alpilles that stretched behind St.-Remy, one that Van Gogh had captured in plein air in other views. Nestled at the mountains' base in the painting are tight coils of a paler greenish-blue, which depict an orchard illuminated by the night sky, and these give way to the cadenced geometry of the village. There, with short horizontal and diagonal touches of paint, he traces its solid, rustic forms and tiled roofs, securing them to the writhing landscape with heavy black outlines and tiny squares of yellow light that shine from its windows. Only the graceful, elongated spire of the church at center, more Dutch than Provençal in its profile, breaks with the rugged, foursquare order of the village to cross the distant horizon.
Nature, too, has a transcendent moment within this intense canvas. Van Gogh had often marveled at the "somber and funereal" beauty of the cypress trees that dotted the southern French landscape, and likened their soaring proportions to that of an Egyptian obelisk. And in his "Starry Night" the flame-like contours of a cypress ascend to meet the radiant night sky, mirroring, but in the far more powerful and dynamic forms of nature, the vertical lines of the diminutive church. The deep, bottle-green hue of the tree, achieved with added strokes of brown and midnight blue, and its placement in a foreground that drops precipitously from view give it enormous pictorial presence and meaning. The cypress, a traditional symbol of eternity, and here functioning as both symbol and prophetic form, bars our entrance at left to the landscape, thus drawing us upward to the flattened, frieze-like expanse of the heavens.
Little in his painting, however, prepares us for the fervor of Van Gogh's nocturnal vision as it is unfurled across his swirling, astral sky. With heavily impastoed, rhythmic strokes of citron yellow, a range of opaque blues and a roiling composition of haloed stars, spiraling nebulae and a moon encircled by light, the painter gives emphatic, tactile form to his steadfast belief in a pantheistic nature. A horizontal cascade of silvery-blue light stretches across the far-off mountaintops -- perhaps an image of the Milky Way, perhaps the dawning light of morning, perhaps the path of stars streaking beyond the limits of his canvas and our view -- and it too is painted with palpable conviction. Exultant in itself and in stark contrast to the scale and quietude of the village, Van Gogh's animated constellation finds reflection in the tiny flickers of incandescendent light that emanate from the village windows, humble human reflections of nature's incalculable magnificence but also proof of man's place, and reason for hope, within a cosmic continuum.
In an age of widespread religious doubt, when many painters framed their art in terms of secular truths grounded in a material, visual reality, Van Gogh's discovery of the eternal in nature, and his emphatic transcription of that vision into the tangible forms of his profoundly moving landscape, was in itself a beacon of hope for modern painters.
Ms. Lewis, who writes often about Impressionism, teaches art history at Trinity College.