Vincent van Gogh, "The Starry Night" (1889), oil on canvas, 29.01 inches x 36.26 inches (image courtesy Google Art Project/via Wikimedia Commons)

Pinning down the many influences layered in Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” (1889) has been the task of many art historians over the years. Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai’s “The Great Wave” (1830–1832) and American poet Walt Whitman’s works, such as “From Noon to Starry Night” or “Song of Myself,” have been cited as possible references. Now, one scholar is proposing that the celebrations for the inauguration of the Eiffel Tower in Paris could have inspired the painting.

In an upcoming April issue of the London-based fine arts publication The Burlington Magazine, art historian James Hall compares the construction of “Starry Night” to a print of the Eiffel Tower’s opening night that included a light show. Hall told Hyperallergic that van Gogh sought to express his dissatisfaction with the monument and with a society more interested in the possibilities of science and engineering than beauty and nature.

Van Gogh would have created this visual critique of the 1889 World’s Fair by substituting the Eiffel Tower with a towering cypress tree and replacing the light shows with the night sky.

“It’s a response saying, ‘look, we have our own natural Eiffel Tower,’” Hall explained. 

Georges Garen, “The illumination of the Eiffel Tower,” chromolithograph (via Wikimedia Commons)

Hall sets up the argument by exploring the Post-Impressionist artist’s obsession with Ancient Egyptian obelisks as a symbol of a utopian society held together by brotherly affection akin to a monastic life. When van Gogh expands his interests to include Cypress trees, he calls them “beautiful as regards lines and proportions, like an Egyptian obelisk.” 

These interests directly opposed prevailing ideologies about Ancient Egyptian art and architecture amongst those in the Third Republic and Gustave Eiffel. According to Hall, after the Franco-Prussian War, France sought to restore its glory internationally and declared its scientists and engineers, who used steel and paid labor, better than those in Ancient Egypt who designed and built pyramids with the labor of enslaved people. (Clearly, there was no mention of France’s colonial holdings or their past history with the institution of slavery.) Gustave Eiffel’s monument, which he compared to an Ancient Egyptian pyramid, was to be the centerpiece of the 1889 World’s Fair. On February 14, 1887, one month after construction of the Eiffel Tower began, around 40 writers and artists signed a letter published in Le Temps protesting the tower, calling it “a gigantic black factory chimney” and an “odious column of bolted metal.”

Although van Gogh did not sign the letter, Hall believes that the artist would have agreed with the article’s sentiment and felt wary of what the tower symbolized. 

Van Gogh left Paris for the French countryside in 1888, preferring the open natural land to the modern city obsessed with mechanization and scientific progress. Therefore, when painting the scene outside his window at the Saint-Paul asylum in Saint-Rémy, van Gogh pulls not only from his personal and emotional turmoil but, as Hall suggests, from his reactions to an engineer attempting to compete with Ancient Egyptian architecture.

“Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ is Nature’s and History’s response to Eiffel’s bombastic shuddering metal monster that sought to surpass the Egyptians, and besmirch Paris,” Hall wrote in the article.

Hall sees parallels between van Gogh’s response and modern pushback to software like ChatGPT or MidJourney. Proponents of new technologies see how MidJourney or steel production will improve lives, while opponents worry about what change will mean for society and the land.

Taylor Michael is a former Hyperallergic staff reporter. Previously, she worked as a public programs coordinator at the National Book Foundation. She received an MFA from Columbia University School of...