From 'Bare-bosom'd night' to Starry Night: Whitman's words painted by Vincent Van Gogh
"Van Gogh said very little about the Starry Night, providing neither a minimal inventory nor any explanation as to why he painted it when he did. Later commentators have concentrated on its complex symbolic imagery" (Pickvance 103). Vincent Van Gogh's most famous work, Starry Night, has been a question mark to scholars since 1889, the year it was painted. Art historians have speculated about the painting's origin over the years; theories include: a rewriting of the Bible (Genesis or Revelations), a result of his deteriorating mental state (Van Gogh was in an asylum when he painted it), a result of Emile Zola's writings, and, alas, a visual interpretation of Walt Whitman's poetry. It is this last theory that I am interested in for the purposes of this site. 

Van Gogh on Whitman  

It is admittedly a stretch to label Vincent Van Gogh a Whitmanian painter, but there is irrefutable evidence that Walt Whitman's poetry influenced Van Gogh's most famous painting. But Whitman's influence is clear from Van Gogh's mindset in late-1888 to mid-1889, when he painted Starry Night. The fact that Van Gogh not only admired Whitman but was avidly reading him during this time surfaces in a letter to his younger sister Wilhelmina: 
    Have you read the American poems by Whitman? [his italics] I am sure Theo has them, and I strongly advise you to read them, because to begin with they are really fine, and the English speak about them a good deal. 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 which after all one can only call God— and eternity in its place above this world. At first it makes you smile, it is all so candid and pure; but it sets you thinking for the same reason. The "Prayer of Columbus" is very beautiful (Van Gogh 445).
This passage illustrates that, without doubt, Van Gogh was reading Whitman around the time he painted Starry Night. This letter was written around September or October of 1888, and Starry Night was painted in June 1889. To further link Whitman to Van Gogh's painting, it is important to note the letter Van Gogh wrote to Wilhelmina before the above section on Whitman. This letter was written around 8 September 1888. "At present I absolutely want to paint a starry sky. It often seems to me that the night is still more richly colored than the day, having hues of the most intense violets, blues and greens" (Van Gogh 443). To clarify, the chronology is as follows: Van Gogh tells his sister that he wants to "paint a starry sky," then he recommends that she read "the American poems by Whitman." Whitman and the starry sky were both in his head before they synthesized into Starry Night. Though he never said much about the painting, is there a better explanation than what he says in the above letter?:  "Under the great starlit vault of heaven a something which after all one can only call God" (Van Gogh 445). 

The fact that Van Gogh entitled the painting Starry Night is another allusion to Whitman, since Whitman's  From Noon to Starry Night was first published in France in 1888 (Schwind 4). "That Whitman is central to Starry Night is suggested not only by the reference of the title, but by Van Gogh's description of the work in his letters. Starry Night, Van Gogh told his brother and [Emile] Bernard, was his only ‘poetic' or imaginative subject; it is a version of the portrait of ‘the poet in a starry night' that Van Gogh first mentioned to Bernard in late 1888" (Schwind 4). Van Gogh, while thinking about a painting of a starry sky, was reading and admiring the works of Walt Whitman.
Starry Night inspired by "Song of Myself" 
Whitman's "Song of Myself," particularly section 21, is the work that inspired Van Gogh: 

    I am he that walks with the tender and growing night, 
    I call to the earth and sea half-held by the night.   

    Press close bare-bosom'd night--press close magnetic nourishing night! 
    Night of south winds--night of the large few stars! 
    Still nodding night--mad naked summer night. 

    Smile O voluptuous cool-breath'd earth! 
    Earth of the slumbering and liquid trees! 
    Earth of departed sunset--earth of the mountains misty-topt! 
    Earth of the vitreous pour of the full moon just tinged with blue! 
    Earth of shine and dark mottling the tide of the river! 
    Earth of the limpid gray of clouds brighter and clearer for my sake! 
    Far-swooping elbow'd earth--rich apple-blossom'd earth! 
    Smile, for your lover comes. 

    Prodigal, you have given me love--therefore I to you give love! 
    O unspeakable passionate love (Whitman 208). 

This theory focuses on the yin-yang type sexual relationship explored in the above Whitman passage and further in Van Gogh's painting. Lewis Layman says that:  "Whitman renders his vision of a harmonious union in which earth and sky fuse together and yet retain their distinctness" (Layman 106). Whitman gives a masculine personification in the line "I am he that walks with the tender and growing night." Opposite this is the feminine earth, which receives "the vitreous pour of the full moon," and brings forth apple-blossoms. The comparison seems like a masculine night/sky power and a feminine earth power, but Whitman jumbles the distinction with the line, "Press close bare-bosom'd night." Layman suggests that the harmony exists in "An interplay between two androgynous forces" (Layman 106). In Starry Night, we see this idea visually: "The unity is similar to Whitman's vision of the sky and the earth as distinct from each other, yet in harmony" (Layman 106). The sexual ambiguity exists in the painting as well. The hills' shape echoes the "bare-bosom'd night," and the large and intruding cypress tree conjures up an image of a phallus. The crescent moon is interesting--it is at first glance a moon, but actually resembles a combination of a moon and sun. The moon, with a striking parallel to the Chinese yin-yang symbol, is therefore the embodiment of harmony. 

The movement of Van Gogh's paint brush also echoes Whitman's lines. Van Gogh's sky is in a state of movement and "press[es] close" to the earth. "The circular movement is a manifestation of a vital 'magnetic' force which seems to draw the tree and steeple upward. The night is 'nourishing' in the sense that it is fertile to the earth" (Layman 107). 
The attraction between the earth and the sky is just as prominent in Starry Night as in "Song of Myself." Equally pertinent to this discussion is Van Gogh's 11 stars, each thoroughly emphasized in the painting. "He expresses the Whitmanian sentiment that each star, like each blade of grass, is unique yet similar to every other one" (Layman 107). No two stars are identical in the painting, yet each is important in its relationship to the whole. Each star has distinguishing characteristics, yet are comprised of the same shape and colors. 

The above section of "Song of Myself" is echoed in nearly every aspect of Starry Night, and though Van Gogh himself rarely discussed this work, Whitman's influence is hard to miss. 

There are two other theories about Whitman's influence on Starry Night. In her essay "Van Gogh's Starry Night and Whitman: A Study in Source," Jean Schwind links Whitman to the painting because of his Noon to Starry Night poems. She also examines "Prayer of Columbus," saying this poem and its counterpart, "Passage to India," are parallel to Van Gogh's Starry Night and its (daytime) counterpart, Wheatfield with Cypress. Hope Werness suggests that Starry Night shares the cosmic consciousness of Whitman's star imagery in "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." But the striking remnants of "Song of Myself" in Starry Night remains the most convincing. All these theories prove one thing: Starry Night was undeniably influenced by "the American poems by Whitman." 

"Starry Night stands out as one of the most important works of art produced in the nineteenth century" (Brooks). The everlasting popularity and importance of Van Gogh's painting will remain; so will the speculation over its origin. This speculation certainly is not limited to Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself," but the textual similarities of section 21 and Starry Night strongly point to Whitman was an influence. And to be an influence on one of the most important works of art produced in the nineteenth century shows Walt Whitman impacted the visual arts world with his poetic imagery.

Back to Index page: Walt Whitman and the Visual Arts
Vincent Van Gogh on the Internet
The Vincent Van Gogh Information Gallery
Want to buy prints of Starry Night and other Van Gogh prints?
The Museum of Modern Art (houses Starry Night in its collection)
The Story of His Life: A Short Van Gogh Bio

Works Cited
Brooks, David. "Starry Night." In The Vincent Van Gogh Information Gallery. Accessed 2 May 1999. 

Layman, Lewis. "Echoes of Walt Whitman's 'Bare-Bosom'd Night' in Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night." American Notes and Queries, 22 (March/April 1984), p. 105-109. 

Pickvance, Ronald. Van Gogh in Saint-Remy and Auvers. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1986. 

Schwind, Jean. "Van Gogh's Starry Night and Whitman: A Study in Source." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, 3 (Summer 1985), p. 1-15. 

Van Gogh, Vincent. The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, Volume Three. Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1981. 

Whitman, Walt. Whitman: Poetry and Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.