From the Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France:
From the moment of his arrival in Arles, on 8 February 1888, Van Gogh was constantly preoccupied with the representation of "night effects". In April 1888, he wrote to his brother Theo: "I need a starry night with cypresses or maybe above a field of ripe wheat." In June, he confided to the painter Emile Bernard: "But when shall I ever paint the Starry Sky, this painting that keeps haunting me" and, in September, in a letter to his sister, he evoked the same subject: "Often it seems to me night is even more richly coloured than day". During the same month of September, he finally realised his obsessive project.
He first painted a corner of nocturnal sky in Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles (Otterlo, Rijksmuseum Kröller-Muller). Next came this view of the Rhône in which he marvellously transcribed the colours he perceived in the dark. Blues prevail: Prussian blue, ultramarine and cobalt. The city gas lights glimmer an intense orange and are reflected in the water. The stars sparkle like gemstones.
A few months later, just after being confined to a mental institution, Van Gogh painted another version of the same subject: Starry Night (New York, MoMA), in which the violence of his troubled psyche is fully expressed. Trees are shaped like flames while the sky and stars whirl in a cosmic vision. The Musée d'Orsay’s Starry Night is more serene, an atmosphere reinforced by the presence of a couple of lovers at the bottom of the canvas.
To Theo van Gogh. Arles, on or about Wednesday, 11 April 1888.
My dear Theo,
It’s awfully good of you to have sent me the complete order of colours, I’ve just received them but haven’t yet had the time to check them. I’m so pleased about it. Today has been a good day too. This morning I worked on an orchard of plum trees in blossom — suddenly a tremendous wind began to blow, an effect I’d only ever seen here — and came back again at intervals. In the intervals, sunshine that made all the little white flowers sparkle. It was so beautiful! My friend the Dane came to join me, and at risk and peril every moment of seeing the whole lot of it on the ground I carried on painting — in this white effect there’s a lot of yellow with blue and lilac, the sky is white and blue. But as for the execution of what we do out of doors like this, what will they say? Well, let’s wait and see.
So, after supper I started on the same painting I intend for Tersteeg, ‘The Langlois bridge’, for you. And I’d really like to make a repetition of that one for Jet Mauve too, because since I’m spending so much we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that we’ve got to try to get some back, of this money that’s quickly slipping away.
Afterwards I was sorry I hadn’t asked for the colours from père Tanguy anyway, although there isn’t the least advantage in that — on the contrary — but he’s such a funny fellow and I still think of him often. Don’t forget to say hello to him for me if you see him, and tell him that if he’d like any paintings for his shop window he can have some from here, and the best. Ah, it seems to me more and more that people are the root of everything, and although it remains for ever a melancholy feeling not to find oneself in real life, in the sense that it would be better to work in flesh itself than colour or plaster, in the sense that it would be better to make children than to make paintings or to do business, at the same time you feel you’re living when you consider that you have friends among those who themselves aren’t in real life either.
But precisely because what’s in people’s hearts is also the heart of business, we have to conquer friendships in Holland, or rather, revive them. All the more so since, as far as the cause of Impressionism goes, we have little to fear at the moment of not winning through. And it’s because of this victory that’s almost guaranteed in advance that for our part we have to have good manners and do everything calmly.
I would really like to have seen the embodiment of Marat you spoke about the other day. That would certainly interest me very much. Unwittingly, I imagine Marat as the — moral — equivalent (but more powerful) of Xanthippe — the woman whose love turned sour. Who nevertheless is still touching — but in the end it’s not as jolly as Guy de Maupassant’s La Maison Tellier.
Has De Lautrec finished his painting of a woman leaning on a little café table?
If I manage to learn how to work up the studies I’ve done from life on another canvas, we’d gain in terms of possible sales. I hope to succeed in doing it here — and that’s why I’m making a trial effort with the two paintings that will go to Holland, and on the other hand, you’ll have them too, and in this way there’s nothing reckless.
You were right to tell Tasset that the geranium lake should be included after all, he sent it, I’ve just checked — all the colours that Impressionism has made fashionable are unstable, all the more reason boldly to use them too raw, time will only soften them too much. So the whole order I made up, in other words the 3 chromes (the orange, the yellow, the lemon), the Prussian blue, the emerald, the madder lakes, the Veronese green, the orange lead, all of that is hardly found in the Dutch palette, Maris, Mauve and Israëls. But it’s found in that of Delacroix, who had a passion for the two colours most disapproved of, and for the best of reasons, lemon and Prussian blue. All the same, I think he did superb things with them, blues and lemon yellows. Handshake to you, to Koning and once again many thanks for the colours.