Let’s take the time to talk about Starry night over the Rhône (Nuit étoilée sur le Rhône). Let’s take a moment and analyse this majestic painting that nowadays can be found in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
The story behind the painting
The painting shows a view of Arles in the night. Arles is a French city near the river Rhône. This river springs in the Rhône Glacier in Switzerland and mouths in the Mediterranean Sea. At the time when Van Gogh painted this, he stayed in the Yellow House (he also painted). This was in the year 1888. It was the combination of the city’s lights, the reflection in the river and the lights in the sky (stars), that convinced him to capture this image. One can only be glad he did so. It shows us a different Arles. A city at the end of the nineteenth century.
Arles is situated in the south of France. It’s home to various treasures when it comes to architecture. The Roman and Romanesque monuments throughout the city are listed as World Heritage since 1981 by the UN organization UNESCO.
At the time Van Gogh stayed in this city, it was a city in transition. The industry became more and more important and the city changed. Like many other cities around the world. This city had a great impact on the work of this famous Dutch painter. He stayed in this city between February 1888 and May 1889. During this period he painted at least 187 paintings. Some of them resemble this painting. That’s not very hard to understand, because he considered this his Study of the starry sky. One of these paintings is even called The starry night. This last painting has a sad story behind it. At that time, he voluntary committed him in the hospital of Saint-Paul-de Mausole (Saint-Rémy-de-Provence). He was admitted to the psychiatric department because he was going through a rough period in his life. There would be many times after, he was facing mental health issues. During that same period, he sent his brother Theo in Paris some of his sketches.
Van Gogh was convinced that he needed to paint the sky during the night. He even wrote about this in a letter addressed to painter Émile Bernard: “When will I ever be able to paint the starry night, that painting that haunts me for years.” He finally did so in September 1888. Unfortunately for the painter, his mental health issues didn’t resolve after painting this starry night.
Van Gogh sent the painting, together with nine other paintings – including The Starry Night, to his brother in Paris. After his death, his widow sold them in 1899 to the Dutch writer Bas Veth. Eventually, Starry night over the Rhône became part of the permanent collection of Musée D’Orsay in Paris. The other painting with the beautiful night sky was sold to Julien Leclerq in 1900. He then sold it to Émile Schiffenecker, who turned out to be an old friend of Paul Gauguin. From there on it went to the Oldenzeel Gallery in the Dutch city of Rotterdam. In 1906, the painting got a new owner: Georgette P. van Stolk. Finally, it was sold to Paul Rosenberg, who lived both in Paris and New York. The Museum of Modern Art acquired the painting in 1941.
One striking detail
Did you see the two lovers in front of the painting? When looking at them, you will just believe these two are lovers taking a walk. Take into consideration the fact that Van Gogh was facing mental health issues and then everything falls into place. These two seem to be standing in a strange way. As if they don’t really belong there. All elements of this painting – the water, the sky and even the city – seem to flow into each other. These two don’t. It looks as if they have emerged from the Rhône or the boats and want to break free from this painting. Compared to the night sky, these two seem even smaller.