Vincent van Gogh, "The Starry Night," Saint Rémy, June 1889, oil on canvas
Prompted by Adam Gopnik's article in the New Yorker on van Gogh's art after the quarrels with Gauguin that led up to the famous ear mutilation, I saw "The Starry Night" again after a long time. It is an absolute marvel, and in Gopnik's eloquent analysis, it reflects van Gogh's personal and artistic transformation after the falling out with Gauguin:
"We tend to see the arc of his work, from the departure from Paris, in early 1888, to his death, in 1989, as more or less continuous, and miss the decisive break marked by the Christmas crisis. Even through the pictures of 1888 he's still mostly a prose painter, with something of the 19th-century illustrator in him–children, postmen, absinthe-soaked café scenes. He still wanted to be Dickens or Daumier. After the Christmas crisis, he accepted that he was only Vincent. His new pictures–"The Starry Night," "Cypresses," and the pictures of the gardens at Saint-Rémy–are depopulated, emptied of any vision of common life. [...] He wrote, 'Let's not forget that small emotions are the great captains of our lives.' Stars wheel, cypresses flame; the whole world comes alive. The common unity is the animism of the ordinary. [...] In the 1889 "Starry Night," it's all night and stars and rolling nebulae: me and the night and the music of the spheres. He's a man alone, and for good."
At the end of his life, van Gogh seemed to have given up his dreams of the community of artists and accepted his isolation, which ironically had the effect of setting his talent free. As another New Yorker art critic, Peter Schejeldahl, wrote, "The delirious "Starry Night" and the hellish "Night Café" attain serenity in their realization, cruising at an altitude of talent beyond imagining."