A Reflective paper on “A starry night” by Vincent Van Gogh

  1. Introduction

A starry night is a painting by Vincent Van Gogh, a famous artist that was mentally ill. His illness was reflected in his paintings and I will reflect on one of this artist’s most memorable paintings that is a starry night. Vincent Van Gogh created this painting in 1889 and was born in 1853; during his lifetime he aspired to become a successful artist, unfortunately he short lived to see the victory of his paintings prosper (Arnold, 2004) however he did create a great number of masterpiece paintings in one decade devoted to art. It was evident during this period that Vincent mentally deteriorated and suffered from Bipolar Disorder and a year later after creating “A starry Night” he committed suicide in 1890 (Jayatunge, 2010).

Discovering this knowledge and being a psychology student, I was asked to write a reflective paper on a song, poem or a painting. Having no academic knowledge on paintings or artists, I considered that option challenging and risky although I thought to myself, I have always been creative and longed to study art that perhaps it was worth considering. It is unfortunate, however that art was not a priority for the high school I attended but I am thankful for the opportunity to reflect on a painting for this psychopathology assignment. As I researched artists with mental illnesses for this assignment, I came across a few painters but none had captured my attention until, suddenly I saw this painting with dark blue colours and bright lights, this piece of art captivated me, elicited emotions from within me, feeling calm and tranquil, I discovered this painting was created by the famous artist mentioned in my psychopathology class, the name of the artist was Vincent Van Gogh and I knew I had to try my best to reflect on this historical piece.

As this is a course paper for psychopathology, I started thinking of the aims and objectives for this reflective essay, some of my objectives will be to provide an interpretation of Vincent Van Gogh’s emotions while painting a Starry Night as well providing other individuals’ perspectives on this painting thereafter I will link up the emotions I perceive to be portrayed by the artist to symptoms of bipolar disorder that I have studied. Additionally, the aim of this paper is a self-reflection of Vincent Van Gogh’s painting, in this section I will discuss how his emotions while painting a Starry Night made me feel, the reasons for my emotional responses and my personal experiences that link up to these responses. Later, I will explain the impact this painting has had on me and my future as well the impact this painting may have on others that witness this creation. In keeping with the academic aspect of this reflective essay, I began to question the treatment of bipolar disorder and pondered about the effective use of light therapy as a form of treatment. In Vincent Van Gogh’s painting, he used a wide array of light colours which intrigued me and I questioned the idea that perhaps Van Gogh used these colours to conduct his own therapy.

  1. Interpretations of Vincent Van Gogh’s emotions while painting a “A starry night”

2.1 My perspective of Vincent Van Gogh’s emotions while painting a starry night and symptoms of Bipolar disorder 2

My interpretation of Van Gogh’s emotions while painting a starry night wavers from each symbol within the painting. There are about nine objects within the painting that are worth mentioning to analyse his emotions, within this painting there are eleven stars, a crescent moon, swirls of what I perceive to be wind, a river effect created by the artist, the hills, the forest, the houses or village, the cypress flower or bush and the use of colour. The upper part of the painting has the starry night sky which is big and bold that drew my eye to the painting; the 11 stars, the crescent moon and the swirls, and the river like effect are all seen in this upper section. I believe Van Gogh decided to be optimistic on that night, his painting tended to focus on the starry night, the light and all the positivity or perhaps hope he longed to have. It is said that while he created a starry night, he was in an asylum looking through the window and saw this beautiful night, there are many details in this painting and it seems to be perfected, it occurred to me that all the lights of the houses were off. This highlights the possibility that he may have not been able to sleep well during that night, he may have become distracted by the night and decided to paint.

The eleven stars were big and yellow, these stars were brighter than the stars I see today and do not seem to lose its shine, Van Gogh may have been happy, energetic and feeling vibrant while painting these features. This energetic state is less severe and is characteristic of a hypomanic state according to Bipolar II symptoms (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2011).The moon seems to be bigger than these stars, even though it is a crescent moon, the luminance or reflection this moon leaves is the brightest part of the painting, while researching this artist, I am across the fact that he believed in God, with this knowledge it may be possible that Van Gogh regarding the moon symbolic of God, while he looked at this symbol, he may have felt hopeful or peaceful about life. Overall Vincent seemed feverishly alive while drawing these images.

The swirls made by his brush strokes seem to be a central feature of the painting indicating movement and motion of the wind I perceive to have occurred on that starry night. The brush strokes flowed with ease and slight aggression perhaps indicating Van Gogh’s feelings during the night. The hills seem to have a similar effect of motion, these images may have represented that Van Gogh’s thoughts and emotions were constantly shifting throughout the night also preventing him from sleeping; the hills could have been symbolic to the highs and lows of his lifetime which he may have reflected on during the night. The river like effect around the stars, seems calming and peaceful, the oil paint seems like a reflection in water as if Vincent could see the reflection of the night in water nearby, he may have been calm while painting that image as it seems smooth and delicate.

The hills mentioned earlier seem to be the start of intricate detail in the painting which begins the bottom section of the painting that includes the forest, houses and the cypress flower. The forest in my perspective is green and the trees seem tightly compressed next to each other, as if they have no room to grow, it seems as if they are all fighting to survive, this may be symbolic of Van Gogh’s thoughts and ideas of that time as he created many paintings. These trees seem to overpower each other and fight for Van Gogh’s attention. The hills seem to have a distant darkness that moves into the forest and town, this may symbolise Van Gogh’s sadness in life or his depressed mood during the night. This state of depression is characteristic of major depression which is a symptom of Bipolar II disorder (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2011). The houses mentioned are intricate and perfected in design, they are also crowded together and yet no people are perceived to be in sight.  This may represent his loneliness and isolation from society as all the lights of the houses are off and the doors are closed symbolising himself being shut out from society, he may be feeling unworthy to be around people as the town houses and church building is distant from his view perhaps considering himself a failure in life. From all this beauty of the night however, he seems to have become distracted by a cypress flower which to me seems to have black leaves with hints of green. This can be symbolising his dark side, mourning, death or darkness that Van Gogh was consumed by which overpowered him with grief.

In my perspective, the use of colours in this painting seems to be represented by contrasting light and darkness. The light, bright colours of orange, yellow and blue may have represented Van Gogh’s feelings of elevation and manic state where as the dark colours which linger underneath the light are painted with strokes of black. These strokes of black paint may represent his underlying feelings of sadness and darkness. The quick movements may represent his manic state, the slow or intricate details as a sense of darkness within the city and the windy night representing his feelings toward his toss in emotional state.

2.2. Others Perspectives on Van Gogh’s emotions while painting a Starry Night

My interpretations of Van Gogh’s emotions while painting a Starry night seem to be similar to others findings, (Bekker, 2009) believes as Van Gogh’s work increased, his mental state deteriorated which was evident in his paintings as the intensity of his colour palette seemed to echo the dramatic face of his inner experience. Bekker (2009) goes on to state that the intensity of his use of colour seems to be a marker of his mental illness considering he painted 70 canvases in 70 days. Another article, suggested the emotion portrayed from Van Gogh in a starry night, is one of hope focusing on the canvas that even a dark night brings hope and there is always a light to guide you. Another aspect of a starry night, that this article considers and suggests that Van Gogh found his heaven and in death he would be at peace also making reference to the fact that his mind was on eternity, the church spire and cypress tree pointing to man and nature which both point to heaven this is similar to my interpretation as I mentioned he seemed calm and peaceful focusing on God (Starry Night Analysis, 2013).

This author suggested that this painting was constantly in motion that Van Gogh unable to contain his feelings and that his angst and passion spilled into this piece. Lee (2013) continues to gather that the cypress image represented Van Gogh’s inner anguish he was going through and turmoil of life which is similar to my interpretation of his grief displayed through the cypress. Additionally, this author is also aware that the people of the town were asleep, unaware of the beautiful sky and the agony Van Gogh was experiencing and was able to see his love for God’s creation that is nature yet no one saw the world like he saw it which created feelings of loneliness as he was rejected. The author concluded with the fact that Van Gogh liked painting landscapes that reflected his soul, this indicates that overall he may have experienced much joy in creating a starry night (Lee, 2013).

  1. Self-reflection of Vincent Van Gogh’s emotions while painting “A starry night”

3.1. My feelings toward his rejection, feelings of loneliness and unworthiness

Van Gogh’s emotions that were expressed in a Starry Night created feelings of sadness within me as he seemed to be a talented artist, yet he was not successful in the art community of the time, this is shown in my perspective in the image of the closed door houses as mentioned previously. The reason for my sadness from the perception of his emotion from the houses stem from my own insecurities of unworthiness of not being approved of by organisations, even though  a limited amount of people did recognise my ability that did not prohibit the rejection I received from a master’s degree in psychology programme. Van Gogh’s loneliness, isolation and feelings of being unworthy in society made me feel despondent. I felt this way because I think rejection for anyone or failure in life comes with great heartache so I can relate to his sadness and rejection as I have experienced similar tribulations.

3.2. My feelings toward his depression and suicidal feelings

I can identify with Van Gogh’s frustration in a Starry Night as he may have reflected on his life’s disappointments; this is evident as he was consumed by darkness throughout the painting as seen in the distant hills and cypress flower whereby some believe he experienced recurrent thoughts of death or suicide clearly losing meaning in life leading him to mourn or grief (Lee, 2013). This made me feel sad for him and created an ache in my heart as it indicates that he lost his will to live, he completely gave up on life and being happy on this planet. This shocked me because he was talented and did not live to see his success. This brought me to a memory of mine as I counselled a young girl that was suicidal and had bipolar disorder symptoms. During this experience, it had occurred to me the reality of the constant suicidal thoughts a bipolar patient can endure. This seems outrageous to me as an optimist of life that a thought of suicide could enter one’s mind, for me it seems absurd but to bipolar patients it seems to be a daily ordinary encounter.

3.3. My feelings toward his hypomanic state

It makes me feel happy that Van Gogh may have longed for hope or considered optimism in his emotional expression of the stars and bright lights. I can relate to his longing for hope because I also try focusing on the positive in my life when I am struggling regarding that this emotion occurred possibly in his hypomanic state. According to Sit (2013), hypomania is a distinct period of having abnormal persistently elevated euphoric expansive irritable mood which may lead Van Gogh to making bad decisions for example it was said that he would eat the paint leading to lead poisoning (Arnold, 2004). I feel this state of elevation, constantly being on a high is dangerous and unhealthy as Van Gogh in my perspective is not and his thoughts are racing (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2011). I am shocked at how fast his movements are in the painting and being calm individual cannot relate to his manic state as I am mainly relaxed. On one hand I feel this may have been beneficial to him as he created the best paintings in this state however even though he was experiencing this optimism or energy it may have not been voluntary and he may have not experienced the genuineness of it leading to disappointed and a depressed reaction after all the manic state. It made me feel sad that even though he is feeling optimistic or energetic that it is not controlled by him consciously although I had noticed his slight aggression in his brush movements which made me feel the pain and compassion for Van Gogh.

3.4. My feelings toward his constant shifting between emotional states

Van Gogh’s emotional expression of his high and low emotional states perceived to be portrayed in the images of the hills and swirls made me feel confused as the painting is motion. The tossing of his emotions from one extreme of manic to depressed state makes me feel uneasy and uncomfortable as my emotions tend to be constant and do not reach such high extremes. This makes me feel unsure and unknowing of what will happen which I do not like knowing and be aware instead of being uncertain in life. His shift between emotions is also evident in my perception through use of light and dark colours. His emotions shift between light, energetic, happy and optimistic to dark, pessimistic, sadness, grief and unworthiness. This made me develop feelings of awareness as even in the bright night colours, darkness is still lingering and in the intricate detail of the cypress and the town houses, there are still spots of light lingering throughout the town. This shows that even though the states are clearly defined in the painting, a bipolar patient can experience an array of emotions at once. For me, it is in this use of colour that created meaning in my life from a spiritual perspective of light and darkness.  For me, the light represents my purity, life, joy and happiness but the darkness represents the trials, unhappiness, disappoints of life and the wickedness that can dwell inside my heart. In my beliefs, it is said to be that God represents the light and Satan represents the darkness that comes to steal the joy and happiness in your life. This painting is a reminder to me to focus on the light and positive aspects of my life, acknowledging the wickedness of life but not letting it define me or control my thoughts. Overall, I feel this painting is calming and peaceful when I look at it, I find hope in the midst of the artist’s pain which renews my faith in life.

3.5. My feelings toward his impact made through a starry night

I believe this painting will influence and leave an impression on wounded hearts around the world to consider optimism instead of the disillusionment from their difficulties in life. This painting may be useful to others with mental ailments which are evident in Fast’s (2013) article as she identifies with Van Gogh’s bipolar disorder. A starry night is not only helpful to others but has been beneficial to me, I feel the painting has helped me personally gain insight into the feelings and experiences of a bipolar patient, helped me discover emotions behind a painting which may not be verbally expressed and understood that human behaviour in terms of their emotions are subjective whereby no mortal can fully comprehend another’s emotions. This is apparent in a Starry Night whereby many are unsure of Van Gogh’s emotions or meaning behind his design. This paper has not only helped me personally but will continue to help me within my profession as I become educated about art therapy which may be used to examine the emotions of clients.  Overall I learned much from this work of art but this piece has also left me to question and contemplate the practice of light therapy in treating bipolar patients which will be discussed in the next section.

  1. The use of Light Therapy in treating Vincent Van Gogh’s Bipolar Disorder

Light therapy also known as phototherapy or bright light therapy can be defined as it uses light boxes emitting full spectrum light comparable in composition to sunlight, daily exposure to this bright light is the treatment for Seasonal Affect Disorder (SAD) which is a form of depression that occurs as a result of reduced exposure to sunlight in winter and may be used for other forms of depression (Weil, 2013). Bipolar disorder which includes hypomania and major depression that it a form of depression, however is usually treated biologically with drug treatments using serotonin reuptake inhibitors, mood stabilizers, and electroconvulsive therapy as well as psychological treatments such as behaviour therapy, interpersonal and family focused therapy (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2011). Considering Van Gogh’s interest in colour and bright lights, it may be possible that bright lights could be effective in the treatment of bipolar disorder. Van Gogh was treated through an asylum where he painted a starry night, he voluntary enrolled himself in this asylum and believed he would be happier there (Van Gogh’s life, 2013), he had three doctors and they seemed to have a good relationship with him, however he was confined and often looked through the window of his room to draw the images he saw (Bell, 2013). Acknowledging this research I examined, I am curious to know the effectiveness of light therapy in bipolar disorder.

In a study that occurred in America on light therapy for bipolar disorder in women, which examined the dose ranging safety and efficacy of bright light therapy for depression in women with bipolar disorder, the results showed that it is advisable to use light therapy for bipolar disorder for brief fifteen minute periods during midday light as morning light is said to trigger manic symptoms (Sit, Wisner, Hanusa, Stull, & Terman, 2013). From this study, I gather that light therapy could be effective for bipolar disorder. According to Smith, Segal & Segal (2013) there is a sensitive biological clock for people with bipolar disorder. This biological clock easily disrupts sleep and wake cycles which can trigger symptoms of mania and depression. Light therapy resets these circadian rhythms, reduces mood cycling by managing the exposure to light and normalizes hormones and neurotransmitters. (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2011).

An advantage of light therapy is that it is affordable with fewer side effects (Sit, 2013), helps some stop taking their daily medication as told by their doctors (Walker, 2013), increases serotonin levels therefore decreasing depression (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2011) and the light box used is small and portable (Miles, 2013) . Bright light therapy or blue light is also effective for depression as blue light has a special wavelength that an eye senses to differentiate day from night. SAD is common in people with bipolar II disorder and can be treated with light as people have responded well to 30-60 minutes of exposure to light. A disadvantage of light therapy is that people use to be sceptical of this method, however recently more are becoming interested in its use, with some declaring little research has been done to indicate whether it is an effective treatment for bipolar disorder and are considering retesting past research (Miles, 2013). In conclusion, I believe light therapy is effective for bipolar II disorder and agree that more research should be conducted on this topic, regarding Van Gogh treatment, I believe he may have used blue and bright lights in a Starry night as a process of inner healing, it may not have helped him with his sleep cycles but it may have eased his major depression (Stucke, 2013).

  1. Conclusion

In conclusion, I have discovered many interpretations of Vincent Van Gogh’s emotions that link up to hypomania and major depression in Bipolar II disorder as well provided other individuals perspectives on his painting. The subsequent section revealed my emotions and reasons for my feelings toward Van Gogh’s emotional expression in a starry night which I viewed as feeling most hopeful in the midst of his angst in the painting. I gathered that it will be of impact to others who suffer from Bipolar Disorders and that the artist helped me personally and professionally. Finally, I debated the effective use of light therapy for Bipolar disorder and discovered that is it useful however more research needs to be considered for a proper assessment of the therapy.




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Van Gogh’s life. (2013, October 5). Retrieved from Van Gogh’s museum: http://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/vgm/index.jsp?page=12267&lang=en

Arnold, W. N. (2004). The illness of Vicent Van Gogh. Journal of the History of the Neurosciences , 22-43.

Bekker, K. G. (2009). Colour and Emotion- A Psychophysical Analysis of Van Gogh’s work. PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts.

Bell, V. (2013, October 2). Attending van Gogh and his asylum art. Retrieved from Mind Hacks: http://mindhacks.com/2008/08/06/attending-van-gogh-and-his-asylum-art/

Fast, J. (2013, October 5). Did Vincent Van Gogh have Bipolar Disorder? Retrieved from http://www.bphope.com/bphopeblog/post/Did-Vincent-Van-Gogh-Have-Bipolar-Disorder.aspx

Jayatunge, R. M. (2010, January 4). Psychological Reflections of Vincent Van Gogh’s Art. Retrieved from Boondi Lexicon : http://boondilexicon.blogspot.com/2010/01/psychological-reflections-of-vincent.html

Lee, M. (2013, October 1). An Analysis on Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night. Retrieved from Vincent Van Gogh Gallery: http://www.vggallery.com/visitors/002.htm

Miles, L. A. (2013, October 5). Light Therapy for Bipolar Disorder. Retrieved from http://psychcentral.com/lib/light-therapy-for-bipolar-disorder/00017001

Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (2011). Assessing and Diagnosing Abnormality. In S. Nolen-Hoeksema, Abnormal psychology (pp. 68-82). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Sit, D. (2013, October 5). Light therapy management and use of light therapy with bipolar disorder. Retrieved from http://www.upmcphysicianresources.com/files/dmfile/LIGHT-THEARPY-BIPOLAR-DISORDER-9-18-121.pdf

Sit, D., Wisner, K. L., Hanusa, B. H., Stull, S., & Terman, M. (2013, October 2). Light therapy for bipolar disorder: a case series in women. Retrieved from pubmed: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18076544

Smith, M., Segal, J., & Segal, R. (2013, October 5). Bipolar Disorder Treatment. Retrieved from Helpguide.org: http://www.helpguide.org/mental/bipolar_disorder_diagnosis_treatment.htm

Stucke, H. E. (2013, October 5). Vincent Van Gogh: From A Clinical Psycho-Art Therapy Viewpoint. Retrieved from http://www.heikestucke.com/vangogh.htm

Walker, S. (2013, October 5). Light or darkness treatment for bipolar disorder. Retrieved from Hubpages: http://suzettenaples.hubpages.com/hub/New-Treatment-for-Bi-Polar-Disease

Weil, A. (2013, October 13). Wellness Therapies. Retrieved from Weil: http://www.drweil.com/drw/u/ART03222/Light-Therapy.html


© 2016 Christina Tess Reddy





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