Was Van Gogh's Starry Night Inspired By a Scientific Drawing of the Whirlpool Galaxy?

Monday, 02 February 2015 - 11:10AM
Space Imagery
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Monday, 02 February 2015 - 11:10AM
Was Van Gogh's Starry Night Inspired By a Scientific Drawing of the Whirlpool Galaxy?

Journalist and photographer Michael Benson has unearthed a scientific drawing of the Whirlpool Galaxy that looks suspiciously reminiscent of the swirling stars in Van Gogh's The Starry Night. In his new book, Cosmigraphics, he postulates that the drawing may have actually served as inspiration for the infamous masterpiece.

 

Van Gogh

[Credit: University of Cambridge Institute of Astronomy Library]

 

The above drawing, composed by William Parsons circa 1845, depicts nebula M51, now known as the Whirlpool Galaxy. The drawing appeared in a popular French astronomy book and caused a sensation in the UK, enough that Benson believes that it would have been in the public consciousness. The fact that the picture was so well-known, in addition to its resemblance to the stars in the painting, is the crux of Benson's argument that it likely served as inspiration for The Starry Night:

 

"It made its way into a French book popularizing astronomy by Camille Flammarion, the Carl Sagan of the 19th century. We believe that drawing led directly to 'Starry Night,' the most famous artistic depiction of the night sky. Either it was in the library of the asylum in the south of France, or he saw it in Paris."

 

Below is an ink-on-paper study completed by Van Gogh in 1889, after he composed The Starry Night:

 

Van Gogh

[Credit: Vincent Van Gogh]

 

Although I haven't read Benson's book in full, it seems that he might be jumping to conclusions in his assertion that the drawing was likely an inspiration for Starry Night. If it was in the contemporary public consciousness, then it seems safe to assume that it was probably an influence, but direct inspiration may be pushing it a little.

 

Van Gogh

[Credit: Vincent Van Gogh]

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