His early paintings were in the style of earlier Dutch painters--heavy and rich. Later, after contact with other artists and Japanese prints, he discovered the power of bright and contrasting colors. He also began to develop a signature style of using visible and expressive brush strokes.
He produced hundreds of paintings in his last years including nearly 40 self-portraits. Some of that time was actually spent in an insane asylum. He had become a bit unstable, at one point cutting off his ear. One of many stories is that he cut it off after a public quarrel with another artist.
Although van Gogh sold only one painting during his lifetime, his images are among the most popular and well-known works today.
Van Gogh was considered to be part of the Impressionist movement, a group of artist who worked during the late 1800s. They strove to capture an impression of the subject being painted, as if one looked quickly and then away. They often used bright colors and were very concerned with capturing how light played on the surfaces of objects and places.
The Starry Night offers a great example of movement in painting. It can sometimes be helpful to show a photograph or another landscape painting to start a discussion with students. Usually landscapes are still and peaceful and the sky offers a calm background. Here, the sky takes center stages and is truly alive. And while the image holds so much energy, creating the painting took planning, precision, and patience.
Understanding the brush stroke is the key to unlocking van Gogh's style. When students paint, they are usually seeking to fill up areas with color quickly. Here, van Gogh is laying each bit of color down carefully and separately. It might be helpful to compare him with pointillism here--where paint is laid down in a series of dots, much like comic books, that our eyes fuse together to create color. Notice how the direction, length, and presence or absence of curves affects movement. The twirling sky is full of curving and short brush strokes while the still, peaceful buildings have straight, longer lines.
Viewpoint is another interesting element of the Starry Night. It seems that we are up on a hill, looking down on the village, making the sky our direct view. This perspective adds to the power of the heavens and smallness of the village. We know that the tree is close to us because of the height and by the cropping of the bottom of it.
Apparently, van Gogh painted Starry Night while in a sanatorium and it's is supposed to be the result of a vision. Some see the stars as exploding, others interpret religious meaning out of the scene, and some see the painting as a reflection of van Gogh's volatile emotional state of the time.
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