Traces of Whitman in Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night”

In 1888, Vincent Van Gogh wrote of Whitman in a letter, “He sees in the future, and even in the present, a world of healthy, carnal love, strong and frank- of friendship- of work- under the great starlit vault of heaven a something of which after all one can only call God- and eternity in it’s place above this world.”

While Whitman’s influence on modern poetry is widely regarded, his influence on art is something less considered. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Whitman had begun to have a profound influence on both painting and music. Many critics have suggested that Van Gogh’s famous painting “The Starry Night” is a visual representation of Whitman’s poetry. In particular, Whitman’s “Song of Myself” contains imagery of two universal entities existing together, something Van Gogh seems to convey in “The Starry Night”. There is a sense of an intertwining masculine and a feminine in both “Song of Myself” and Van Gogh’s painting. “Song of Myself” contains feminine characteristics such as “bare bosom’d” and “nourishing” that mesh together with the earth’s seemingly masculine characteristics of “liquid trees” and “mountains misty-topt”. In the painting, the “masculine” earth and the “feminine” sky and clouds intertwine in swirls of color. Van Gogh paints the sky and the town as though the two are meshed together, perhaps representing Whitman’s line, “press close bare bosom’d night- press close magnetic nourishing night!” (21). It may be that Van Gogh was depicting Whitman’s “bare bosom’d night” with his rounded hills that are painted a similar blue as the sky fixed above the town. It is interesting to note that each star in Van Gogh’s painting is painted individually, an idea in sync with Whitman’s attitude that “each blade of grass is unique, yet similar to every other one”. Whitman’s line “night of the south winds- night of the large few stars!” could have inspired Van Gogh’s spiral, windy, starry, sky. Furthermore, Whitman’s “From Noon to Starry Night” contains imagery that could serve as the inspiration behind “Starry Night” with lines such as, “Nor only launch they subtle dazzle and thy strength for these, / Prepare the later afternoon of myself- prepare my / lengthening shadows, / Prepare my starry nights”.

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One Response to Traces of Whitman in Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night”

  1. Trent Derrick says:

    Great post! Very interesting connection made between two of the great minds of the time. The two artists feel the same way and yet express the same idea in wildly different fashions

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