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Robert Satterfield comments about Starry Night and The Night Cafe.

I wish to bring to your attention a couple of observations which you may find useful to post on your most excellent web site. It seems to me that what is very plain has been overlooked by those who have chosen to make their own intrepretations of Vincent's work.

  1. In Letter B7 to Emile Bernard penned in June 1888 fully one year before painting Starry Night near the end you will find the following: But when shall I paint my starry sky, that picture which preoccupies me continuously? Alas! alas! it is just as our excellent colleague Cyprien says in J. K. Huysmans's En Menage: "The most beautiful pictures are those one dreams about when smoking pipes in bed, but which one will never paint."

    Thus the pipe dreams of the artist of the smoke moving on gentle air currents is superimposed on the painting. Unfortunately some have chosen to feel he was trying to represent the violent mistral winds mirroring the "torment in his soul." I prefer the simple referenced explanation which seems much more elegant and suits Vincent's style better.

  2. When Vincent was working in the Borinage near Wasmes he described the effect of going down into a coal mine in letter 129 to Theo: One goes in kind of a basket or cage, like a bucket in a well, but in a well from 500 - 700 meters deep, so that when looking upward from the bottom, the daylight is about the size of a star in the sky. For Vincent this was an unpleasant experience accompanied by some degree of nausea.

I was quite struck by this passage in which Vincent would have seen a powerful light source surrounded by the refraction along the inside of a cylinder. One can consruct a very good model which I have done, but suffice it to say that I feel this as a very strong visual image which Vincent used to depict a light source. The better known examples are The Night Cafe and Starry Night among others.

Let me add parenthetically that a few years ago I sent these observations to the Van Gogh Museum. So they should have them as a matter of record. It seems to me that many so called experts make observations without a full working knowledge of the complete letters. I have used my three volume set repeatedly since its acquisition about 13 years ago from Hacker Art Books in New York City.

Respectfully submitted,

Robert Satterfield
2 May 2000

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