The riddle of the painting

Starry Night Over the Rhone by Vincent van Gogh at the Musée d’Orsay – Photograph Raymond Martinez 2003


Questions about the painting “Starry Night Over the Rhone” by Vincent Van Gogh

Origin of the painting

The painting was painted in Arles on the banks of the Rhône at the end of September 1888

Technique : oil on canvas – Dimensions (H × L) : 72,5 cm × 92 cm

Localisation : Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France (source Wikipédia)


Description :

The painter represented Arles seen at night with the Rhône, the river running trough the city. The lighting from the quays is reflected over the river. The silhouettes of the roofs and steeples are standing out against the blue of the sky. In the foreground, we distinguish a couple and moored boats. In the sky in shades of blue, multiple stars where the constellation of the Great Bear appears in the center.

Note: Van Gogh is one of the few painters to have depicted the starry sky, two more of his paintings also depict the night sky:

“Café terrace at night” painted in Arles in September 1888
“The Starry Night” painted in Saint Rémy de Provence in June 1889


Presupposed of the painting:


  1. Vincent Van Gogh painted “Starry Night Over the Rhone” at the end of September 1888
  2. This work was painted in Arles, on the banks of the Rhône, near Place Lamartine where his house (La Maison Jaune) was located.
    Since the artwork was painted on site, we can imagine that he will not have been able to walk a long way in the night with his painting equipment. Candles or even a street lamp could have helped him light up such a place that was certainly very little lit at this time.


Letter to Wilhelmina

The date on which Vincent van Gogh painted this picture is confirmed by a letter sent to his sister Wilhelmina dated September 9 and 16, 1888 in which he states his intention to paint the starry night:

“I definitely want to paint a starry sky now. It often seems to me that the night is even more richly coloured than the day, coloured in the most intense violets, blues and greens.

If you look carefully you’ll see that some stars are lemony, others have a pink, green, forget-me-not blue glow. And without labouring the point, it’s clear that to paint a starry sky it’s not nearly enough to put white spots on blue-black.”

Letter to Theo

Then a letter to his brother Theo dated September 29 when the painting is finished :

“Included herewith little croquis of a square no. 30 canvas — the starry sky at last, actually painted at night, under a gas-lamp. The sky is green-blue, the water is royal blue, the areas of land are mauve. The town is blue and violet. The gaslight is yellow, and its reflections are red gold and go right down to green bronze. Against the green-blue field of the sky the Great Bear has a green and pink sparkle whose discreet paleness contrasts with the harsh gold of the gaslight. Two small coloured figures of lovers in the foreground”

Here is a sketch attached to the letter:


Letter to Eugene Boch

Finally a letter to his friend the painter Eugène Boch dated October 2, 1888:

«And lastly, a study of the Rhône, of the town under gaslight and reflected in the blue river.

With the starry sky above — with the Great Bear — with a pink and green sparkle on the cobalt blue field of the night sky, while the light of the town and its harsh reflections are of a red gold and a green tinged with bronze.»

In this letter, Van Gogh attached this sketch of the painting.

Where did Vincent van Gogh put his easel?

As for where the painting was painted, a sentence from the letter to his sister indicates that he certainly painted it on the spot: « Cela m’amuse énormément de peindre la nuit sur place. Autrefois on dessinait et peignait le tableau le jour d’après le dessin. Mais moi je m’en trouve bien de peindre la chose immédiatement. Il est bien vrai que dans l’obscurité je peux prendre un bleu pour un vert, un lilas bleu pour un lilas rose, puisqu’on ne distingue pas bien la qualité du ton. Mais c’est le seul moyen de sortir de la nuit notre conventionnelle avec une pauvre lumière blafarde et blanchâtre, alors que pourtant une simple bougie déjà nous donne les jaunes, les orangés les plus riches. »


We can compare the current landscape with that of the painting:

Photograph and assembly Raymond Martinez © 2012

The positioning takes into account the steeples of the church of St Julien and St Martin du Méjan, the bend of the Rhône and the bridge of Trinquetaille.


The angle in which the landscape of the painting is inscribed – Image Google Earth

The red circle represents the supposed location of Van Gogh’s easel,

Coordinates: 43° 40′ 56″ N 4° 37′ 48″ E – Table Orientation: South West



Now let’s take a look at the starry sky in the artwork:


By comparison, thanks to the Stellarium software,

we can reconstruct the sky visible in Arles at the end of September 1888.

This view represents the sky visible in Arles on September 26, 1888 at 11:15 p.m.
with a North North West orientation

As can be seen, the Big Bear is in the same position as on the chart even though the lowest star in the cart is shifted to the right.



This is the sky Van Gogh saw over the city when he painted the picture

This view on Google Earth image represents in red the angles inscribed by the landscape of the city and in blue the angle of the celestial landscape



Mischievous Vincent


It is interesting to note that Vincent Van Gogh has, with a certain mischievousness, positioned the stars in alignment with the street lamps. This gives the illusion that the reflections on the Rhone are those of the stars. The couple in the foreground thus find themselves under an area without reflections because this is the place where the river is crossed by the bridge and there are no bright stars above. The couple remains in the shadows as if the painter wanted to preserve their privacy. We also notice that the man on the arm of the Arlesian woman is wearing a yellow hat reminiscent of some self-portraits by Vincent Van Gogh.



Mysterious Vincent

The question asked by the work :


The representation of the city and the river downstream is oriented towards the South West, however, The Big Bear cannot be visible in this direction because it is a circumpolar constellation visible only towards the North.

Why did Vincent Van Gogh depict the Big Bear when it was not visible from that direction?

Some of the hypotheses considered include:

  • The sky was overcast that day and he represented the stars from memory.
  • He found the sky above the city poor in stars and preferred to represent a constellation he knew well.
  • He positioned himself facing the Rhône with the canvas parallel to the bank. In this case, he had on his left the city illuminated by the street lamps with the reflections on the downstream of the river and on his right, upstream, the Big Dipper. He then, on the canvas, merged the two planes.

In the latter case, he made a landscape at the bottom of the painting and another at the top.

This is an unusual situation because while painters usually represent a point of view, he grouped the space around him in a single frame.

Visionary Vincent

Through this unprecedented attitude and this capacity for synthesis,

Vincent Van Gogh upsets the canons of painting of his time and announces the future evolutions of art, cubism, surrealism, abstraction…



© Raymond Martinez 2012