The Starry Night (1889) by Vincent van GoghMoMA The Museum of Modern Art
Starry Night- Vincent Van Gogh
This dreamy skyscape is one of Vincent Van Gogh’s best loved paintings which still manages to capture the imagination of viewers to this day. Inspired by Japanese woodblock paintings by the likes of Hokusai, Van Gogh recreates that same sense of a landscape in flux through swirling brushstrokes. Here it appears as if foamy waves are flowing through the sky, and the stars themselves seem to be caught mid-rotation; zooming in reveals just how dynamic Van Gogh’s application of paint is. But few people know that this work, so full of exuberant vitality, was actually painted by Van Gogh during his time at a psychiatric asylum, and that this landscape was his view from his dorm window. More poignant still is the fact that some critics have interpreted the exploding stars as indicative of Van Gogh’s bursts of manic depression.
The Seed of the Areoi- Paul Gauguin
Disillusioned with urban life, and the West more generally, Gauguin fled to the exotic French colony on Tahiti in the furthest reaches of the South Pacific Ocean. Instead of paradise on earth, he discovered an island suffering from disease and abject poverty. But Gauguin was determined to look past all that, and strove to translate the fantasies of Tahiti that he’d harbored in his mind onto the canvas. This painting depicts a nude Polynesian goddess (modeled on the artist’s Tahitian lover) against a backdrop of blue mountains, a turquoise lake and yellow palm trees. Although Gauguin said that the bright colors that he used were inspired by the actual Tahitian, the garish palette only amplifies the sense of unreality.
The Seed of the Areoi (1892) by Paul GauguinMoMA The Museum of Modern Art
Bather- Paul Cézanne
This is just one work in a series of giant bathers created by Cézanne who was looking to challenge conventional approaches to painting the human form. Here we a have a colossal young man who dwarfs the mountains behind him in the background. But Cézanne doesn’t emphasize his muscularity or his physical heroism in the way that Renaissance and Baroque artists such as Ruben would have been inclined to do. Instead his bather is a monument to the awkward man: the one who slouches (look at his left shoulder), who daydreams as he walks and who doesn’t have a well-toned physique. He is a modern man, painted in a thoroughly modern style which does away with rigid perspective or structuring.
The Bather (1885) by Paul CézanneMoMA The Museum of Modern Art
The Sleeping Gypsy- Henri Rousseau
Rousseau’s enigmatic painting predates the Surrealists’ fascination with the subconscious. What are we looking at here? Does a lion really approach a sleeping mandolin player, or is the lion actually a part of the gypsy’s dream which Rousseau has made external? Either way, there’s something deeply compelling about the fantastical nature of this scene; from the kindly looking lion to the endless sky and desert, to the outlines of a face which we can make out if we zoom in on the moon. Rousseau’s bold use of color and clearly defined lines mean that his works often resembles print or poster art.
The Sleeping Gypsy (1897) by Henri RousseauMoMA The Museum of Modern Art
Grandcamp, Evening- Georges Seurat
While we obviously think of Georges Seurat as an artist, he was inclined to describe himself as a scientist. Revolting against the free-spirited techniques adopted by the Impressionist movement, Seurat studied chromatic combinations and applied individual dots of different colored paint onto the canvas with the most careful attention to detail. When we first look at the hedges in the foreground for example, they seem to be just different shades of green...
Grandcamp, Evening (1885) by Georges-Pierre SeuratMoMA The Museum of Modern Art
...But if we zoom in we see that they’re actually filled with tiny flecks red, yellow, blue, pink, orange almost every other color imaginable! Rather than mixing colors on his palette, Seurat intended that they fuse together in the viewer’s eye to create a coherent image.