Vincent Van Gogh is one of the most fascinating figures in art and painting; the Impressionist genius lived a short, difficult life plagued by mental illness and inspirational torment. In the meantime, however, he managed to channel that sadness into works of wonder that continue to thrill art enthusiasts to this day. Two such paintings are Starry Night and Mulberry Tree, both painted in 1889, which reflect some of the more fascinating elements of Van Gogh’s painting.
In The Mulberry Tree, the painting depicts the titular tree resting in an abstractly-painted field. Rolling hills surround the tree, which rests against a gray stone. Behind it are several other trees, bushes, and the bright blue sky. In The Starry Night, Van Gogh chose to paint a detailed, lovely depiction of the night sky, with a twisted tree in the foreground and a bustling town in the background, in front of more rolling hills and mountains. The scene itself depicts the room outside his window at the sanitarium he got help from in Saint-Remy-de-Provence., while the mulberry tree in the previous painting was located outside the garden of the asylum. Both subjects are representational of certain aspects of Van Gogh’s life, as he chose to depict things that he found beautiful during his stay in an asylum.
The Mulberry Tree is applied with Van Gogh’s signature post-Impressionist style; the ground is created with quick, short brushstrokes in brown and white, which is a sharp contrast to the earthy tree trunk, which is colored with browns and greens. The growth and plant life behind the tree is shown with other greens; however, the majority of the work consists of the leaves of the mulberry tree itself, which are orange and dying from the changing of the seasons. The sharp blue sky against these orange leaves create an even greater contrast, because of the complementary nature of these colors.
The Starry Night, on the other hand, uses mostly blues and greens as a spectrum. The village of Saint-Remy lies below, with yellow windows peeking out of the blue hue of the houses, all drawn very specifically and sharply. In comparison, the hills and the cypress tree that border the town are drawn with a bit more abstraction, the rolling hills and twisting branches given a bit less specificity. The real star of the painting is the starry sky, in which clouds and star patterns twirl and contort in fascinating shapes, Van Gogh simply using interesting colors and abstractions to create a sense of wonder while looking at the sky.
Both The Mulberry Tree and The Starry Night convey very similar things in similar contexts for Van Gogh. For example, both works take place in the same year (1889), the year he was confined to a mental asylum. Both paintings depict things he saw out his window in Saint-Remy, from The Mulberry Tree’s tree outside in the garden of the asylum to The Starry Night’s beautiful sky outside his window in his room at the sanitarium (Van Gogh Gallery, 2013). The mulberry tree is most definitely imbued with his own rare sense of joy, as the leaves and the beauty of the landscape were painted because he felt the majesty of nature and “the culmination of subjectivity and the culmination of materiality” (Sobchack 306). These were painted during his more lucid moments, allowing him a moment of peace in the midst of the insanity he dealt with.
The two artworks, despite both being from similar places and times in Van Gogh’s life, still depict very interesting differences in style. While The Mulberry Tree shows a plain-faced tree in all its splendor, it shows the tree as it would most reasonably be depicted. There is no overt abstraction of the tree itself, apart from Van Gogh’s typical painting style. However, with The Starry Night, Van Gogh inserts a bit more presentationalism into his work, as the swirling sky is much more majestic and fantastically than one would normally find in real life. Both of these works seem to depict Van Gogh’s view of the world at varying stages of lucidity and joy.
In conclusion, both The Mulberry Tree and The Starry Night are representations of Van Gogh’s battle with insanity during his time in the mental asylum at Saint-Remy-de-Provence. Both works were painted there, and both have the same broad brushstroke-heavy style, with heavy uses of bold colors to emphasize the hyperreality of his works. Both show the majesty of nature, showing, respectively, the loveliness of a large mulberry tree and the delightfulness of a starry night in Provence. The works themselves were ways of Van Gogh to depict his more lucid moments, the times when he could find beauty in the world despite his own manic depression (Liebermann 37). While his own life was plagued with insanity and cruel depression, to the point where it took his own life, these two paintings are clear examples of his occasional ability to happen upon complete beauty in the world around him.
Lieberman, William S. Modern masters: European paintings from the Museum of
Modern Art. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1980.
Sobchack, Vivian. Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture. University of
California Press, 2004. Print.
The Van Gogh Gallery. “Vincent van Goghs: The Mulberry Tree.” Van Gogh Gallery. 2013.
Van Gogh, Vincent. Mulberry Tree. Oil on canvas. 21 ¼ x 25 ½ in. 1889. Painting.
Van Gogh, Vincent. Starry Night. Oil on canvas. 29 x 36 ¼ in. 1889. Painting.