My Favourite Painting: Emma Bunce

The head of the Royal Astronomical Society chooses Vincent van Gogh's classic image,The Starry Night.

Emma Bunce explains her choice, The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh

‘As a physicist, I am drawn to space, fascinated by the universe, and it’s clear that van Gogh was, too. His technique is captivating — brush-strokes thick and noticeable, his style far from photorealism.

‘What I admire most is his ability to achieve visual simplicity from something so complex. Where my challenge is to understand the night sky scientifically, his was to represent it artistically; the similarities between his work and scientific images taken by NASA’s Juno spacecraft at Jupiter are accidental, but striking .’

Professor Emma Bunce is the head of School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Leicester and president of the Royal Astronomical Society.

John McEwen on van Gogh and The Starry Night

Van Gogh’s happiest year was at 87, Hackford Road, south London, working for Goupil, the Paris-based art dealers of which his uncle, Vincent, was a partner. He was 20 and had fallen in love with Eugenie, his landlady’s daughter. He yearned to achieve the ultimate fulfilment of becoming a loving husband and father, but she rejected him and wilderness years followed. Drawing was a consolation, a talent ‘that can be of great value to him,’ his mother wrote.

His younger brother, Theo, a more successful Goupil employee, was convinced that van Gogh could be a great artist. Their sister disagreed: ‘I think it would be much better if he thought himself just an ordinary being.’

Eventually, Theo persuaded him of his vocation. Van Gogh stayed with him in Paris, studied ferociously and made contacts. Even for Theo, it was a relief when he left for Provence in 1888: ‘My home life is almost unbearable’. Van Gogh remained dependent on him for money and materials.

In Provence, he fulfilled his artistic potential, largely unrecognised in life. The warm south entranced van Gogh and he thought his new pictures ‘might really break the ice in Holland’. He planned ‘a starry night with cypresses’, not painted until he entered Saint-Rémy’s asylum following his 1889 breakdown. He had a ‘studio’ room, but Starry Night shows his bedroom view (plus Saint-Rémy village). The brightest star is Venus. He did not send the picture for sale to Theo and later referred to it as a failure.

In his wilderness years, he tried evangelism in a Dutch mining district. The starry firmament always seemed to him God’s wondrous beneficence and eternal, universal, surveillance.