Victor Hugo & Van Gogh: They met “in the Center of The Starry Night”

March 12, 2013 — 5 Comments
The Starry Night, 1890, by Vincent van Gogh

The Starry Night, 1890, by Vincent van Gogh. Painted  at the Saint Paul asylum in the year of his death at age 37

Victor Hugo and  Vincent van Gogh never met in person. However an avid reader of fiction, Van Gogh, was extremely moved by a passage in  Victor Hugo‘s masterwork, Les Miserables. This is according to William J. Havlicek, PHD, a  Vincent van Gogh scholar and author of Van Gogh’s Untold Journey. Havlicek poured over van Gogh’s 900 letters  to create his biography. Some of the letters have  only recently  been discovered.

The passage from Les Miserables  is as follows:

“He was out there alone with himself, composed, tranquil, adoring, comparing the serenity of his heart to the serenity of the skies, moved in the darkness by the visible splendors of the constellations and the invisible splendor of God, opening his soul to the thoughts that fall from the Unknown. In such moments, offering up his heart as the flowers of night emit their perfume, he lit like a lamp in the center of the starry night, expanding in ecstasy the midst of creation’s universal radiance, perhaps he could not have told what was happening in his own mind; he felt something floating away from him, and something descending upon him, mysterious exchanges of the soul with the universe.”

It is worth noting that van Gogh , the son of a pastor, had a deep sense for the poor and the unwanted. He was attracted to the works of Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo , both proponents, as himself,  of the social welfare  movement in Europe.

As a man in his early 20s, van Gogh gave away all his worldly belongings  to the poor in response to his call to become a pastor. The Dutch Reform church, however, rejected van Gogh as Pastor material considering him too “common” to draw a congregation.  However, according to the letters of van Gogh,  the artist remained a man of faith all his life.

Van Gogh was educated and multi-disciplined. He was a painter from the age of 27 until he died at 37. Unable to make a livelihood as a painter, he relied on the patronage of his younger brother, Theo, an art dealer.

Based on new research from the Pulitzer Prize winning team  of  Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith,  it appears that van Gogh suffered grand mal epilepsy  and dementia in the last year and a half of his life . This was a result of brain damage due to the  abuse of the liquor, absinthe, which many artists of that time, including Baudelaire,  and Oscar Wilde , used with great proficiency. New evidence also indicates that van Gogh  probably did not commit suicide but that he was killed by some local town ruffians when a gun malfunctioned.

Literature heavily influenced the art tradition of the 19th century.  Illustration was an art form — the books of  Victor Hugo included illustrations. Artists  as varied as  William Blake, Gustav Dore, and Aubrey Beardsley emerged  from that tradition of illustration.

Van Gogh was never approached to illustrate a book. Van Gogh had to read  and be inspired by Victor Hugo and  then paint that vision.

“I dream of painting and then I paint my dream,” van Gogh reportedly said.

As a culture we are fortunate that Hugo and van Gogh met “in the center of the starry night” as Hugo wrote in Les Miserables. For without Hugo’s writing, van Gogh may never have been inspired in the way that he was to paint what has become one of the most recognized pieces of work of he 19th century.



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5 responses to Victor Hugo & Van Gogh: They met “in the Center of The Starry Night”

  1. As someone who has been profoundly affected by both van Gogh and Victor Hugo, the linking of the two seems so obvious I wonder why I haven’t thought of it. Thanks for this article. Whenever art provokes engagement with the poor and outsider, it hits on a high water mark which can only be divine.

    • Homelessguide –
      Your moniker is a stunner! Thank you so much for your comment! As is today, so many of the artists living have a great, expansive love for the poor and the needy as did both van Gogh and certainly Mr. Hugo.

  2. I love these posts about van Gogh. Havlicek’s book sounds fascinating. It’s now on my lengthy list of to-be-read books.

    It’s interesting to learn that this painting was inspired by Hugo and by a dream. An image similar to this has been in my dreams more than once in my life. If I tried to commit it to drawing, it would be more appropriately titled something along the lines of “Slimy Mess”.

    • Rick – I find van Gogh such a fascinating character and I am well-upped by his compassion. He was a “mess” (probably similar to your drawing) — yet he seemed to have such charity and love about him. Even his death seems to be ignited by not wanting to shame or hurt anyone, including perhaps the town ruffians who appear to have killed van Gogh by the accidental misfire of a gun. Even then, van Gigh would not tell the police the truth as he did not want to ruin the lives of the the kids (he lived for two days after the gunshot wounds to his stomach). He is a fascinating subject as he continued to stretch toward God as his body warred against him…

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    […] center of the starry night” likely inspired the painting Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh (see in brief, or in detail), who wrote of Les […]

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