An art historian has a new theory about the source of inspiration behind Vincent van Gogh’s iconic painting Starry Night. James Hall, a professor at Southampton University and former art critic for The Guardian says the Eiffel Tower had a significant influence on the artist’s series of paintings of cypress trees based on how the monument was unveiled.
Hall argues that the opening of the wrought-iron structure in Paris in 1889 came with a spectacular late-night show of pyrotechnics, electric light, and explosions. According to Hall’s theory, the vision was repeated in the “pyrotechnical music of the stars, sky and clouds” of van Gogh’s painting.
Starry Night was produced by van Gogh during his incarceration in an asylum near Saint-Rémy in southern France. The cypress trees portrayed in his paintings have been interpreted “as an exploration of abstraction or a mystical evocation of nature”.
“Van Gogh’s Starry Night is nature’s and history’s response to Eiffel’s bombastic shuddering metal monster that sought to surpass the Egyptians,” Hall writes. “The obeliscal cypress dominates Saint-Rémy and its church spire in much the same way that the 300-metre Eiffel Tower dominates Paris.”
The Eiffel Tower was the star attraction of the International Exposition after reports on its planning and preparation were frequently published in newspapers and journals. In 1886, Gustave Eiffel won the competition for its design with his open-lattice submission.
In June 1889, the same month the monument was unveiled, van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo: “The cypresses still preoccupy me, I’d like to do something with them like the canvases of the sunflowers because it astonishes me that no one has yet done them as I see them. It’s beautiful as regards lines and proportions, like an Egyptian obelisk.”
According to Hall, the Eiffel Tower was “bombastically marketed as a symbol of French technological prowess, and even more impressive than the pyramids.” In addition, the Dutch artist an Gogh idealized ancient Egypt. “He thought the cypress tree was as beautiful and well-proportioned as an obelisk,” Hall told The Guardian, which first reported on the research.
Hall compares the cypress trees at the forefront in van Gogh’s Starry Night and in Wheatfield with Cypresses, currently in the collection at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
“The cypress tree was the first part to be painted. Its base is bulked up with a smaller tree, which makes its shape more pyramidal and closer to that of the tower. Something similar happens in Wheatfield with Cypresses, where Van Gogh left a gap between a big and small cypress, and both seem to lean into each other like the tower’s legs.”
Both works will be part of the museum’s first exhibition focused on the Dutch painter’s fascination with the “flamelike evergreens”, along with dozens of drawings, illustrated letters, and other works. “Van Gogh’s Cypresses” opens on May 22.
Hall’s research will be published in the April issue of the arts journal Burlington Magazine.