How to Read “The Starry Night” by Vincent van Gogh

Exploring Van Gogh’s nocturnal masterpiece

Christopher P Jones
6 min readNov 15, 2022


Christopher P Jones is the author of How to Read Paintings, an introduction to some of the most fascinating artworks in art history.

The Starry Night (June 1889) by Vincent van Gogh. Oil on canvas. 73 × 92 cm. Museum of Modern Art, New York, U.S. Image source Wikimedia Commons

We often experience the night sky as countless pinpricks of light set against an impossibly dark and silent black — such is the way a starry night appears to the naked eye.

Yet Vincent van Gogh painted something quite different: a spiralling light-filled figment, replete with texture, waves and ripples.

The Starry Night has become one of Van Gogh’s most recognisable and celebrated paintings. But why did he paint the night sky in this way?

And what was his surprising view of his own painting?

A Dream of an Idea

The idea of painting the night sky had been simmering in Van Gogh’s mind since at least the summer of 1888 when he wrote excitedly to his friend and fellow painter Emile Bernard: “But when will I do the starry sky, then, the painting that’s always on my mind? Alas, alas … the most beautiful paintings are those one dreams of while smoking a pipe in one’s bed, but which one doesn’t make.”