Light plays a heavy role in a preponderance of classical paintings. Renaissance and Baroque artists employed light to create atmosphere and dramatic effects. Realists depicted the interactions between object colors and light from the environment. Impressionists, no less, captured fleeting effects of light on their subject matter. Vincent van Gogh, however, practically worshiped the very sources of light themselves.
His starry night paintings, most famously, were awash with his fervent adoration of the celestial bodies. Starlight spiraled on his canvas next to a brightly blazing moon, their radiance swirled around the wide skies by rolling clouds. Thick dollops of paint piled onto the center of his orbs, while intense brush strokes dabbed feverishly away at their exploding rays. As he remarked in a letter to his sister, he was inspired by free-spirited poet Walt Whitman, who saw “under the great starlit vault of heaven a something which after all one can only call God—and eternity in its place above the world.”
This pursuit of light was not confined to nocturnal hours. The Sun, too, took center stage in not a few of his paintings, setting ablaze the skies with its mighty radiance and pouring its golden light onto the vast fields underneath. Screenwriter Richard Curtis wrote of the artist in an episode of Doctor Who, “To my mind that strange wild man who roamed the fields of Provence was […] one of the greatest men who ever lived.” He might as well have been describing a ragged farmer basking in the glow as he strolled across one of van Gogh’s sun-drenched lands.
Even artificial light sources were lavished with van Gogh’s loving attention. In Starry Night Over the Rhone, light emanating from homes lit up the river, where their gleaming reflections rivaled the brilliance of the stars above. In The Night Café, ceiling lamps took on lives of their own as they swayed commandingly above the café patrons, their yellow glows pulsating in the air as if to the beat of music.
van Gogh was, nonetheless, not unique in his fascination with light. Chinese mythology describes of a giant named Kuafu, who raced after the Sun, chasing it until it disappeared at the horizon at dusk. The Japanese people, as a whole, has an attachment to fireflies – the insects feature prominently in many verses (“Do I see only fireflies drifting with the current? Or is the Night itself drifting, with its swarming of stars?”), prose and folktales, among which include a legend portraying fireflies as the spirits of slain warriors. In fact, the bugs have been used as a metaphor for passionate love in Japanese poetry since the emergence of the oldest anthology, Man’yōshū, during the Nara period.
Still, as ardent as this longing for light may be, the quests for it often ended in calamity or melancholy. van Gogh suffered from epileptic episodes, mood swings, paranoia and delusions during his life, which allegedly culminated in a violent suicide. Kuafu, overwhelmed by an enormous thirst at the end of his pursuit, drank up the Yellow River but failed to quench his thirst. He then proceeded to the Great Sea, but succumbed to dehydration before he reached the place. If deceased warriors did find a new form of embodiment through fireflies, their extended time on Earth lasted merely as long as the lifespan of the insects: a measly two months on average. Even love sometimes fizzles out and vanishes without a trace, making its resemblance to the beautiful but short-lived insects more of a lament than an accolade.
Yet if one could catch a glimpse of these individuals at their most glorious moments: van Gogh’s romantic renditions of the heavens, Kuafu conquering vast stretches of land under his feet in his bold wager against the Sun, the warriors’ heroic battles for their cause; it may be hard not to be dazzled by their awe-inspiring efforts. Regrettably, many historic figures do not leave adequate marks of themselves for modern-day opinion makers to form a well-rounded judgement of them. Often, their legacy was left at the mercy of victors, who could be incentivised to tarnish their names. Even when such mudslinging did not occur, contemporary commentators, knowing only of their ultimate defeats (be them to the force of nature or human adversaries), may be quick to dismiss them as pathetic losers. One can only imagine the full extent of the injustice as their true selves are shut away in an unreachable corner of history, the forced recluses in our collective narrative.
Exactly how many “van Gogh”s, far more removed from the present era than the starry night lover himself and incapable of leaving records of themselves in their trail, have languished in human memory, their valiant struggles never seeing the light of the day?