Vincent van Gogh: The Starry Night & Skeleton With Cigarette

The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh

We can’t add much to Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) and his legacy, other than celebrating his genius with the rest of the world. We figured it was about time!

The result? We’re taking a look at a couple of his works, particularly The Starry Night. Behold it up above!

It’s one of the most famous pieces in modern art history. The Dutch post-impressionist completed it in 1889.

And he painted it whilst in Saint-Paul-de-Mausole lunatic asylum, which he admitted himself into on 8th May of that year. 13 months before his death.

So, yes, he painted it whilst in an insane asylum. That was following a mental breakdown in late 1888, resulting in his infamous self-mutilation.

His mental health struggles were so severe, during his day he was thought of as a madman. And, now, van Gogh fits the bill of the quintessential tortured genius.

He started drawing as a child and worked as an art dealer, although his earlier work was different from the likes of The Starry Night.

As he grew older, he became increasingly worried about his state of mind.

He suffered psychotic episodes and delusions—exacerbated by his heavy drinking and terrible diet.

Poverty was another issue for him, a tragic contrast to the astonishing amounts his paintings get in auction to this day.

But amongst his personal misery, he continued painting prolifically. In most cases, with colourful and joyous pieces.

Although a sense of melancholy and fractured view of the world is clear to see.

The Starry Night is a woozy, dreamlike vision—packed with swirling blues, the sky dominating the architecture below. The Moon enormous and bright, like a light bulb.

In September 1988, he’d produced the below—Starry Night Over the Rhône.

Starry Night Over the Rhone by Vincent van Gogh

Again, it all seems to merge into one giant organism. Like there aren’t separate parts, just life itself right there—the light and dark of the world.

But although they give the impression he was painting them at night, he was no night owl. These were mainly worked on during the day.

He painted from his imagination, using the logic it’d add more creative value to his work.

Starry Night Over the Rhône is a peaceful, atmospheric piece. But The Starry Night is full of energy, at least from the heavens above. A giant church spire forces itself amongst the clouds and stars (van Gogh was deeply religious).

Due to his state of mind at the time of painting The Starry Night, it’s open to all manner of interpretations.

Understanding of mental health issues was limited at the time. Which, sadly, meant he led a rather miserable and sorry life.

Although he took solace in art (stating the obvious award goes to us today). And he vociferously wrote letters to his brother Theo, many of which are rather revealing and touching.

But the piece certainly belongs in its era. Incredible as it is. Whereas there’s one other that could have come about mere days ago.

Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette

Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette

Yes, we were keen to take a look into this one as well. We’re surprised we don’t see it mentioned more often amongst his work and in popular culture.

It’s disturbingly modern, given what we know about tobacco.

Back in van Gogh’s day, it was touted as a health product. Quite a lot of people thought smoking was pretty good for them.

As with Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, when you post the skeletal image online it gives the impression of a large size.

Yet it’s an undated work and on a small canvas of 32 by 24.5 centimetres (12.6 x 9.6 inches). The belief is it’s a satirical piece.

Before human models were in use for artists in the medical world, human skeletons were the preferred choice.

So, scholars think it was van Gogh having a jab at anachronistic academic practices. He was in Belgium around 1885 studying at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. So possibly saw some old practices he had contempt for.

Not much else is known about it. His brother Theo acquired it after Vincent’s death, after which it passed through the extended van Gogh family.

In 1962, the Van Gogh Foundation got its hands on the diminutive piece. It’s now on long-term loan to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Museum Overload

There’s the Van Gogh Museum if you need a further fix. Of course, it’s shut at the moment—but you can take a virtual tour to see his work.

It’s in Museumplein in Amsterdam. We vaguely remember visiting it on a trip there in 2007, along with the Heineken museum.

And then our mates had some space cakes—within an hour they were barely able to walk and we had to lead them back to our hotel. Fun times!

The Van Gogh Museum, like many others, is active during this coronavirus time pouring culture on the world.

Pretty much the best way to go about dealing with the crisis. Revel in escapism, creativity, our self-isolation survival kit, and A Concise History of Art.

That or, you know, you can turn to the van Gogh experts. What do they know?!

We’re not artists, we’re pretty rubbish at all that. But it’s certainly a good release if you’re a bit stressed out right now.

So, why not use a master to inspire you? That’s Mr. Vincent van Gogh for you. May his legacy last forever!


  1. I once visited the Van Gogh Museum too, around 2004. What I particularly remember were the cubicle doors in the toilets. Really. They were a single giant LCD panel. When you locked the door, the panel went opaque. I kept wondering whether, if the power failed, they’d go transparent again. (Since then I find the electric charge/polarisation effect is a switch, not reliant on current keeping going…) Anyway it was rather cool & the net outcome was that everybody, including most of the Dutch branch of my family, had to go and check it out. Mr Van G’s artwork ran rather second place…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I remember staying in a youth hostel type thing called The Flying Pig. I think it was that, my uni mates and myself went in late 2005 as well. The main takeaway for me was “let op”. Which means “look out”. I’ve remembered that ever since.


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