Unraveling the Mysteries: : Van Gogh’s Starry Night and Physics


Vincent Willem van Gogh was a Dutch Post-Impressionist painter who created approximately 2,100 artworks, including around 860 oil paintings. His extensive body of work was primarily composed of landscapes, still lives, portraits, and self-portraits, the majority of which were created during the last two years of his life while he was staying at the asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in Southern France.

Van Gogh’s paintings are characterized by the bold, expressive use of color and dramatic, textured brushwork that contributed to the development of Expressionism in modern art. His style illustrated the key characteristics of Post-Impressionism, such as the application of patterned brushstrokes, the use of unnaturalistic colors to evoke emotion and alter perspective, and the symbolic incorporation of geometric shapes to recreate natural subjects and scenes. One of Van Gogh’s most renowned works, “The Starry Night,” is a prime example of his Post-Expressionism style.

Van Gogh’s idea to draw the night sky had been a recurring theme in his letters to family and friends, acknowledged both as a compelling idea and a challenging one. In a letter to fellow painter Emile Bernard in the spring of 1888, Van Gogh confessed his desire to tackle the depiction of a starry sky: “A starry sky, for example, well – it’s a thing that I’d like to try to do,” he wrote, “but how to arrive at that unless I decide to work at home and from the imagination?”

As an artist who preferred to work directly from nature whenever possible, using prints or working outdoors, the idea of painting a scene purely from imagination troubled Van Gogh. Although he had previously painted a night sky in “Starry Night over the Rhône” (1888), depicting the French city of Arles at night, he had done so outdoors with the aid of gas lamplight. However, evidence suggests that his second rendition of a Starry Night, famously known as “The Starry Night,” was created within the confines of his studio.

Vincent van Gogh, Starry Night over the Rhone,1888, oil on canvas, 72 x 92 cm (Musée d’Orsay) Photo: Steven Zucker

After the conclusion of his brief collaboration with painter Paul Gauguin in Arles in 1888 and the infamous incident where he mutilated his own ear during a breakdown, Vincent van Gogh found himself admitted to Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, an asylum, and clinic for the mentally ill near the village of Saint-Rémy. In addition to his private room, which gave him a sweeping view of the Alpilles mountain range, he was given a small studio for his artistic endeavors. Although this studio lacked a direct view of the mountains and instead overlooked the asylum’s garden, it is believed that Van Gogh drew inspiration for “The Starry Night” from elements of previous works stored in his studio, as well as from his imagination and memories.

What’s in the painting?

Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night, 1889, oil on canvas, 73.7 x 92.1 cm
(The Museum of Modern Art, New York; photo: Steven Zucker)

The composition of the painting adopts an unconventional style, allocating nearly two-thirds of the canvas to the sky, thereby directing our focus towards the night sky teeming with stars. In both landscape photography and painting, it’s a distinct practice not to allocate the majority of the frame to the sky unless it holds particular interest. Van Gogh’s decision to depict the night sky in such prominence reflects his intention to present the audience with something captivating with the sky.

In “Starry Night” by Vincent van Gogh, the small village below takes center stage under the vast night sky. The village shows a peaceful atmosphere, with its charming buildings illuminated by a soft, golden light. Against the backdrop of the expansive sky, the village rooftops and structures stand out, highlighting the human presence amidst the awe-inspiring beauty of nature.

In the center of the painting, there’s a striking cypress tree, its dark silhouette stretching upwards. This majestic tree brings a sense of height to the artwork, drawing the viewer’s attention and leading their eyes toward the swirling sky above. With its unique shape and prominent position, the cypress tree acts as a symbolic link between the earthly village and the celestial heavens, bridging the gap between the tangible world below and the mystical realm above.

The sky above the village is a breathtaking spectacle of swirling patterns and vivid colors. Van Gogh’s skillful brushwork brings the night sky to vivid life, showcasing it with a dynamic sense of movement and vitality. Deep blues blend seamlessly with vibrant yellows and greens, creating a mesmerizing blend of color and form. The clouds, with their swirling shapes, seem to dance across the canvas, echoing the restless spirit of the artist himself.

Stars (detail), Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night, 1889, oil on canvas, 73.7 x 92.1 cm
(The Museum of Modern Art, New York; photo: Steven Zucker)

On the other hand, The Starry Night evidences Van Gogh’s extended observation of the night sky. As he wrote to his sister Willemien van Gogh from Arles, “It often seems to me that the night is even more richly colored than the day, colored with the most intense violets, blues and greens. If you look carefully, you’ll see that some stars are lemony, others have a pink, green, forget-me-not-blue glow. And without laboring the point, it’s clear to paint a starry sky it’s not nearly enough to put white spots on blue-black.”(14 September 1888)

Impasto and brush strokes (detail),Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night, 1889, oil on canvas, 73.7 x 92.1 cm (The Museum of Modern Art, New York; photo: Steven Zucker)

What’s unique in Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night”?

Van Gogh and other Impressionists showed light in a new way. Instead of just painting it still, they made it seem like it was moving. Like how light twinkles and blends in the night sky, as seen in “Starry Night.”

The way we perceive colors on a canvas is influenced by luminance, which is how bright or intense the colors appear. Our brain’s basic visual processing, which notices light contrast and movement but not specific colors, can blend two differently colored areas if they have similar luminance. In Van Gogh’s works, our brain’s primitive subdivision sees contrasting colors separately without blending them. This dual interpretation makes the light in these paintings appear to pulse, flicker, and radiate uniquely.

The ability to identify patterns and describe those understood patterns is one of the most interesting aspects of the human brain. Still, the concept of turbulence flow in Fluid dynamics is one of the most complex things to grasp. Andrey Kolmogorov, a Russian mathematician, made significant contributions to our understanding of turbulence. He suggested that the energy in turbulent fluid, at a certain length scale represented by R, changes in proportion to the five-thirds power of R. Experimental observations have shown that Kolmogorov’s theory closely matches the behavior of turbulent flow. However, despite this insight, fully describing turbulence remains one of the unresolved challenges in physics.

V838 Monocerotis captured by the Hubble telescope (Credits: NASA, ESA)

In 2004, scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope observed swirling patterns in a distant cloud of dust and gas surrounding a star, V838 Monocerotis, reminiscent of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.”

Physicist José Luis Aragón and his team from the National Autonomous University of Mexico studied Van Gogh’s paintings to see if they matched the patterns found in natural turbulence, like swirling water. They used a mathematical model called Kolmogorov’s model to measure how closely the paintings resembled real turbulence. They discovered that the paintings from Van Gogh’s “psychotic” periods closely resembled natural turbulence, showing similar swirling patterns.

They analyzed digital versions of Van Gogh’s paintings, examining how brightness changed between different pixels. They found that paintings from Van Gogh’s turbulent period showed patterns similar to fluid turbulence. Interestingly, his self-portrait during a calmer time did not display this similarity, nor did the work of other artists like Munch’s “The Scream,” which initially appeared turbulent.

Kolmogorov and turbulent flow

Andrey Kolmogorov

Kolmogorov made significant strides in understanding turbulent flow, proposing a theory that views turbulence as a cascade of swirling patterns across different scales, getting smaller and smaller as they flow. This theory, known as Kolmogorov’s turbulence theory, sheds light on how turbulent fluids behave and is crucial in fields like meteorology and engineering.

With Kolmogorov’s turbulence theory, in a turbulent flow, there are different sizes of swirling patterns called eddies. The largest ones, comparable to the size of the flow itself, extract energy from the main flow and are mainly responsible for mixing. They aren’t much affected by viscosity.

Turbulent flow and eddies

The smallest eddies, on the other hand, have a consistent behavior regardless of the flow conditions. They get their energy from the larger eddies and dissipate it as heat due to the fluid’s viscosity. These small eddies follow Kolmogorov’s scales and are influenced by viscosity.

In between these extremes are the intermediate eddies, known as Taylor-length scale eddies. They have a size range in the middle and their turbulence is isotropic. These eddies are not directly linked to the largest or smallest ones. It is assumed that the eddies in this region can be characterized by the turbulent dissipation (ε) and the wave number (κ).

In turbulent flow, large eddies break into smaller ones, transferring energy in a cascade-like process until the smallest stable eddies form. This sequence of energy transfer is known as the energy cascade.

Energy Cascade

He also developed equations, called the Kolmogorov equations, which describe the statistical properties of turbulence. These equations help analyze and predict turbulent behavior, aiding in various practical applications like designing efficient transportation systems and improving weather forecasting.

Through both theoretical and experimental research, Kolmogorov’s work greatly advanced our understanding of turbulent flow, shaping fields beyond fluid dynamics and into complex systems analysis.

Van Gogh and turbulent flow…

In collaboration with scientists from Spain and England, Physicist José Luis Aragón compared Van Gogh’s remarkably accurate depiction of natural turbulence with images captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, likely caused by dust and gas turbulence. By analyzing digital photographs of several of Van Gogh’s paintings, including The Starry Night, Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe (1889), Wheatfield with Crows (1890), and Road with Cypress and Star (1890) that visually resemble turbulence, Aragón and his team identified the cascading pattern known as “scaling,” as described by Kolmogorov to explain fluid turbulence.

Vincent van Gogh, Wheatfield with Crows (1890)

Likewise, “Wheatfield with Crows” is hailed as one of Van Gogh’s masterpieces and is recognized as his final painting before his death on July 29, 1890. His tragic end, widely believed to be a suicide, followed prolonged struggles with depression, anxiety, and possibly bipolar disorder and epilepsy. Interestingly, both “Wheatfield with Crows” and “The Starry Night” were found to accurately depict turbulence according to mathematical analysis. However, when he was in a state of calm, like when he painted “Self-portrait with Pipe and Bandaged Ear,” there was no turbulence seen in that particular painting.

Vincent van Gogh, Self-portrait with Pipe and Bandaged Ear.
Despite the presence of smoke in the painting, there is no turbulence depicted here, unlike in “Starry Night”.

While this is just one example, it’s interesting to think about how our brains perceive these works and why “Starry Night” is more famous. It’s not as simple as saying Van Gogh’s mental state “solved” a physics problem, but it’s fascinating how he captured such complex concepts in art. This connection between art and physics isn’t unique to Van Gogh; similar analogies have been found in unexpected places, like fluctuations in foreign exchange markets.

Van Gogh is just one of many artists who have portrayed swirling patterns in their works. Other artists, like Gustav Klimt and Stacey Spiegel, have also incorporated similar motifs. Psychologist Gerald Cupchik and his team have found that our brains respond emotionally to such features in art, suggesting they tap into an innate aesthetic sense. But why do artists depict these patterns? Cupchik believes it’s because they’re abundant in nature, like swirling water or stormy waves. Van Gogh, sensitive to these natural phenomena, included them in his work.

While it’s impossible to prove that Van Gogh’s struggles granted him supernatural insight, it’s also incredibly challenging to convey the profound beauty of how, amidst intense suffering, he could capture one of nature’s most complex concepts. Van Gogh’s art united his distinctive perspective with the profound mysteries of movement, fluidity, and light remarkably. Today Van Gogh’s mysterious masterpiece “Starry Night” is a jewel of the crown of MoMA’s permanent art collection in New York City.


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