The Magic Turbulence of Van Gogh’s Starry Night

Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh is considered one of the world’s most cherished masterpieces. Painted in 1889 while the artist was resident at an asylum in Saint Remy, France, the painting depicts a swirling nocturnal sky above a peaceful rural village. Though the artwork has enthralled art fans for over a century, there remains a mystery embedded within the brushstrokes…

Starry Night is just one of over 100 paintings Vincent created during his year at the asylum and it was far from his favourite. He considered it a ‘failed attempt at abstraction’ and felt his canvasses of the surrounding countryside and gardens were much more successful.

His art dealer brother, Theo, shared his opinion as did Jo Bonger, Theo’s wife and custodian of Vincent’s work after his death. In fact, the canvas slipped into obscurity for a number of decades after being sold (for a song) to a private household where it remained for 30 years. It eventually found a new lease of life when it was bought by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1941 where it became an instant hit with the viewing public.

For the remainder of the 20th Century, the popularity of this forgotten painting grew until it joined the ranks of the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper to become one of the most famous works in all of Art History. Even though millions of art fans travel to see Starry Night up close, few of them are aware of the mystery which lies between the brushstrokes.

In 2004, scientists investigating the cosmos through The Hubble Telescope observed some swirling space dust and remarked on its similarity to the brushstrokes of Starry Night. This intrigued some other scientists who started to study the movement in a small selection of Van Gogh paintings.

They digitized Starry Night, Wheatfield with Crows and Road with Cypress and Star and studied the occurrence of luminance within. They found that the proximity of light and movement in these three paintings matched the scientific equation for turbulence. As a control they also ran the same test on Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear and it came back as having no scientific turbulent properties. Interestingly, further investigation shows that the 3 artworks which matched the turbulence equation were all created while Vincent was in a period of ‘psychological agitation’. The portrait with the bandaged ear was painted while Vincent was feeling ‘level-headed’.

So, the conclusion of this study tells us that while Vincent was experiencing mental unrest, he was somehow capable of replicating turbulence onto a canvas with scientific precision. Although, just how he managed to do this will never be truly discovered. We can ruminate that the onset of mental illness may occur in similar patterns to those of an approaching storm or we can consider that Vincent was highly attuned to nature and worked with the same force and instincts as the natural world around him but ultimately, this strange quirk of art history will remain forever a mystery.

The full findings of the scientific study can be found here https://arxiv.org/pdf/physics/0606246v2.pdf

Whilst not dealing with the turbulence or science of Starry Night – this is a fantastic book for fans of the masterpiece and van Gogh alike https://amzn.to/2VO2Rik

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