Art comparison: ‘Olympia’ and ‘The Starry Night’, Manet vs. Vangogh

‘The Starry Night’

‘The Starry Night’ was not Van Gogh’s first depiction of a night sky. In
Arles, he had been proud of his painting of the stars and the reflection of the lights of the town in the River Rhône, one of the first results of a plan intimated to Emile Bernard in April 1888. He wanted to paint a starry night as an example of working from the imagination, which could add to the value of a painting: ‘we may succeed in creating a more exciting and comforting nature than we can discern with a single glimpse of reality’, he wrote. In a letter to Theo(his brother) of the same date, Vincent was more explicit about the motif: ‘a starry night with cypresses or possibly above a field of ripe wheat’. With his ‘Starry Night’, painted in Saint-Rémy, he fulfilled that promise and did so at a time when he was more determined than ever to prove himself the equal of his fellow artists.
Van Gogh also mentioned as a joint aim ‘a kind of painting giving greater consolation’. This supremely religious aspiration was no longer related to the Christian ethic for Van Gogh. His insistence that the canvases were not a return ‘to romanticism or to religious ideas’, though somewhat puzzling at first, was intended only to show that the works had nothing in common with earlier mystic paintings. He had once admired religious subjects from ancient art, but he now considered that the feeling of solace should primarily be evoked by the colour and design of representations of nature. ‘The Starry Night’ should be seen as based on religious ideas only in this specific sense. The artistic solution chosen by Van Gogh for these canvases lay in a compelling form of stylisation. The landscape with hills – in which he had attempted ‘to render the time of day when you see the green beetles and cicadas fly up in the heat’ and ‘The Starry Night’ were, he wrote later, ‘exaggerations in terms of composition’ with lines ‘warped as in old woodcuts’. Van Gogh was referring to the somewhat primitive, coarse illustrations in the household edition of the works of Dickens rather than to the carefully executed wood engravings in contemporary magazines. in the drawings which he also made after these paintings, this abstraction has been taken a step further. ‘The Starry Night’ in particular was an attempt by Van Gogh to create a masterpiece on a par with the very stylised work of Gauguin and Bernard. The graphic style adopted by Van Gogh was not an obvious choice to achieve a nocturnal effect in which surfaces and silhouettes would normally play a greater role than lines. The style is in this sense rather artificial, and the same can be said of the scene itself, put together as it is from different studies from nature. Van Gogh may have had doubts about the painting, but subsequent commentators have elevated ‘The Starry Night’ to a place among his most exceptional and important works. The combination of style and religious overtones has fuelled endless critical debate. Several authors have investigated the extent to which Van Gogh’s night sky is true to life, but the science of astronomy has failed to produce an unambiguous answer. In the light of Van Gogh’s opinions this is hardly surprising: he was permitting himself the artistic freedom which Bernard and Gauguin also exploited.


 Manet  paraphrased a respected work by a Renaissance artist in the painting Olympia (1863), a nude portrayed in a style reminiscent of early studio photographs, but whose pose was based on Titian‘s Venus of Urbino (1538). The painting was controversial partly because the nude is wearing some small items of clothing such as an orchid in her hair, a bracelet, a ribbon around her neck, and mule slippers, all of which accentuated her nakedness. This modern Venus’ body is thin, counter to prevailing standards; thin women were not considered attractive at the time, and the painting’s lack of idealism rankled. A fully dressed servant is featured, exploiting the same juxtaposition as in Luncheon on the Grass.Manet’s
Olympia was also considered shocking because of the manner in which she acknowledges the viewer. She defiantly looks out as her servant offers flowers from one of her male suitors. Although her hand rests on her leg, hiding her pubic area, the reference to traditional female virtue is ironic; the notion of modesty is notoriously absent in this work. The black cat at the foot of the bed strikes a rebellious note. Manet’s uniquely frank (and largely unpopular) depiction of a self-assured prostitute was rejected by the Paris Salon of 1863. At the same time, his notoriety translated to popularity in the French avant-garde community.


 I am attempting to differentiate the work-pieces based on some points. There could be ‘more’ points on that, but the attempts are solely mine, a viewer in 21st century, trying to find out the ‘archeological facts’ about the works or the masters. It is always impossible to ‘discover the discourse’ sitting on the present and digging out the past, for someone cannot efficiently or exactly glean all the facts of the society at that period of time.  Manet was an early impressionist. He worked in the ‘grey area’ between ‘Realism’ and ‘Impressonism’. Some of his work depicted his biasness towards ‘orientation’. He effectively used juxtapositions in his famous works to ‘display’, ‘internalize’ the social facts. He was the master of ‘female body’. He experimented a lot with different themes and combinations of female body/bodies. Manet challenged the traditional society’s view about woman/female introducing his ‘idea’ of females. He showed the ‘bear nakedness’ of the society criticizing  ‘socially constructed’ identities at that time. In
Olympia, he showed a different identity of a self-assured female prostitute, standing against the authority of the society. It was profane at that time and the piece was not allowed for display in some museums at
Paris. But he achieved the individuality of his character in relative to other  graphic pieces on his canvass through ‘relative positioning’. So the ‘Urban tone’ is clearly present in this piece of work (like most of his works).
  On the other hand, Van Gogh came from a poverty stricken background where life was ‘color-less’ and exposed its ‘grimace’. The life that Van Gogh was brought up, was a ‘nightmare’ for him. And if you add ‘lack of artistic recognition’, ‘lack of support’, one can imagine how difficult time he was passing. In reaction, Van Gogh developed an extremely ‘Subjective’ view of reality, a reality which he can control using color, using expression. A truth about nature that he can depict with the authority of God. Vincent is often labeled as Post-impressionist or Expressionist artist.   In the ‘The Starry Night’ (whose paper copy is hanging on my living room), one will find an ‘astronomically impossible’ depiction of a night. The darkness of the night is expressed like a ‘ocean of blue’, providing more depth, a depth like an ocean. The circular, thick brush-strokes around the stars, moon (
Orange color moon) created a spell on the mind. Ideally an artist should be interested to express the ‘blurriness’ of the objects since it is ‘night time’ after all. Vincent went into the opposite direction; he made things more visible which are infact, less visible in our real world! He created his own ‘Starry Night’ than is offered by the nature. The tree almost touched the ceiling of the cosmos (night sky), thus breaking the boundary of far sky and the landscape. The tree’s intention to reach the sky is a mere translation of the viewer’s intention to do so. The house-roofs, hill tops, gables are flooding with the ‘blue’ of the night, the ‘Starry Night’ spell-bound the entire village. The stars are like the ‘blobs of orange’ shining not in the sky, but in the viewer’s mind. The concentric thick brushes(with mix of orange and blue color) around the stars created a ‘wave-like’ motion in the canvass, a motion of orange-blue-ocean current, keeping the mind busy in its magic track. The Starry Night is captured in viewer’s imagination and subjectivity. Thus struck by the ‘colorlessness’ of the life, Vincent gets a relief with his imagination and provides a relief to the viewers who develop more mechanistic view of a starry night based on what they see in their  everyday life, what they are taught by the positivism of human sciences.


One Response to “Art comparison: ‘Olympia’ and ‘The Starry Night’, Manet vs. Vangogh”

  1. art with charcoal Says:

    art with charcoal…

    […]Art comparison: ‘Olympia’ and ‘The Starry Night’, Manet vs. Vangogh « Critical Thinking[…]…

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