Starry-Eyed : But Van Gogh’s Feet Were on Ground, Astronomers Say

Times Science Writer

The swirling, brilliant sky in Vincent van Gogh’s spectacular painting “Starry Night” reflected the deep thoughts of a serious amateur astronomer rather than the hallucinations of a mad genius, a UCLA art historian has told the American Astronomical Society meeting here.

Albert Boime said Van Gogh was obsessed with “celestial phenomena” when he created what was probably his most famous masterpiece while confined to an upper-story cell of the mental asylum in the French monastery Saint-Paul-de-Mausole.

Boime, a professor of art history, said Van Gogh was suffering with epilepsy, not insanity, and he believes the painting was based on the artist’s genuine observations.


Boime, who presented a formal paper before the astronomical society’s annual convention here on Tuesday, said several astronomers at UCLA and elsewhere had looked at his evidence and reached the same conclusion.

Simultaneously, Charles Whitney, an astrophysicist with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, was pursuing the same course and reached similar conclusions. In a telephone interview, Whitney said both his findings and Boime’s are of interest to art historians because they show that Van Gogh based his paintings on “his actual impressions of the sky.”

“We have to get away from this idea that Van Gogh was insane,” Boime said in an interview. “He suffered from epilepsy and he recognized that he needed help. He had put himself in the asylum. But he was perfectly rational and sane between seizures, as his letters show.”

Boime quoted from several of Van Gogh’s letters, written mostly to his brother from the artist’s cell.

“These were the letters of a rational, intelligent human being,” he said.

Other experts agree. Whitney, who has presented his findings to various art symposiums, said the thinking today is that Van Gogh’s “illness was episodic. Between the episodes, he knew what was going on.”

Charles Moffett, curator of European paintings at the San Francisco Fine Arts Museum and a leading authority on Van Gogh, said: “I have often taken the stand that he (Van Gogh) wasn’t the lunatic everybody assumed him to be. He’s had a bum rap.

“All you have to do is look at his works. They are from a cogent, intelligent, rational individual. Everything is very carefully worked out.”

Boime said that Van Gogh painted with great concern for accuracy, and with a passion for the heavens.

“Van Gogh had more than a perfunctory interest in celestial phenomena,” Boime said.

Boime said he concluded that the French impressionist had his astronomical facts right after Ed Krupp of the Griffith Observatory used the Los Angeles planetarium to recreate the sky over the monastery as it would have appeared on June 19, 1889, “the day Vincent wrote excitedly to Theo (his brother) that at last he had executed his ‘Starry Night.’ ”

Planetarium Slide

Boime showed a slide from the planetarium alongside a reproduction of the painting. The moon in the painting is where it should have been if Van Gogh painted the scene at around 4 a.m., as Boime believes, and the bright object just above the church steeple is where Venus would have been.

The constellation Aries is shown across the top of the painting, and Boime believes the swirling mass in the center of the work was a comet drawn from the artist’s imagination rather than the scene as it appeared that morning. Boime presented a reproduction of a page showing various comets published in an 1881 issue of Harper’s Weekly, “a magazine regularly read by Van Gogh during that period.” The comets bear a striking similarity to the swirl in “Starry Night.”

The swirling pattern is what got Whitney interested in studying Van Gogh’s works. The pattern, he said, resembles a spiral galaxy, the first of which was discovered 40 years before Van Gogh painted “Starry Night.” Whitney said he set out to determine whether Van Gogh knew of the phenomena. He said he never found the evidence he was seeking, but he is inclined to believe that the artist was, in fact, depicting a spiral galaxy.

Boime conceded that the artist took considerable liberty with dimensions, and even inserted a church that would not have been in the area as viewed from Van Gogh’s cell. But he said the scene as a whole “tallies with astronomical facts at the time the painting was executed.” None of the astronomers attending the session quarreled with that conclusion.

In his letters, Van Gogh frequently described the view from his window, and often included references to celestial phenomena, including this quote:

“This morning I saw the country from my window a long time before sunrise, with nothing but the morning star (Venus), which looked very big.”

In other letters he described the stars in great detail, concluding at one point in a note to his sister that “it will be clear that putting little white dots on a blue-black surface is not enough.”

“Naturally, the circumstances of the picture’s execution were fraught with the deepest personal meaning for the painter,” Boime said in his prepared comments. “Incarcerated in both mind and spirit, urged on by the longing for both the security of life after death and the desire to escape his physical limitations, Van Gogh painted a motif that put him in touch with the cosmos in a way that made this connection immediate and real.”

The stars, Boime concluded, represented immortality to the artist. As the artist wrote:

“Looking at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots representing towns and villages on a map. Why, I ask myself, shouldn’t the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France? Just as we take the train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star.”