Star turn – Frank McNally on a surprising Irish link to Vincent van Gogh’s most famous painting

An Irishman’s Diary

Detail from Vincent van Gogh’s most famous work, The Starry Night, painted during his great creative storm of 1889. Museum of Modern Art, New York

Detail from Vincent van Gogh’s most famous work, The Starry Night, painted during his great creative storm of 1889. Museum of Modern Art, New York

 

Wandering the streets of Paris last weekend, I chanced upon the Moulin de la Galette, a Montmartre windmill painted repeatedly by Vincent van Gogh when newly arrived there in 1886 and still struggling to find his definitive style.

Then a couple of days later, I found myself in the town of Juvisy-sur-Orge, just south of Paris, which van Gogh probably never visited but which may help explain one of the mysteries of his most famous work, The Starry Night, painted a few years later during his great creative storm of 1889.

There is an Irish link to the story too. But then, as I now know, there are several such links in Juvisy. For a start there is my friend Cécile Dejardin, historian and genealogist, who lives there and had invited me to lunch.

Cécile learned some of her impeccable English as a visiting student in Cavan and has since been a regular visitor to Ireland, especially Mayo, as part of various commemorations of 1798 and the Year of the French.

It is poignantly apt, therefore, that Juvisy holds the remains of the first Irish soldier to die in the first World War, a Mayo man named Stephen Kennedy.

Born near Ballina, he joined the Connaught Rangers in 1914 and was fatally wounded in Belgium on August 21st. Sent to the military hospital at Juvisy, he died next day and is the sole Irishman among 76 soldiers buried in the nearby Athis-Mons cemetery.

Another man who ended up in Juvisy was the surrealist writer Raymond Queneau (1903-76), whose links with Ireland were rather more eccentric. He never visited it and in an interview with this newspaper in 1971 admitted candidly that he had no interest in doing so – “I don’t know why”.

But he was big admirer of James Joyce, which led him to write two novels set in this country, one of them a comic version of the 1916 Rising. It was later made into a film, described variously as “popular in Paris” and “unwatchable”.

Queneau’s fictional heroine (and his pseudonym for the books until he was outed) was “Sally Mara”, a libertine who causes chaos by seducing in turn all seven of the Rising’s leaders, not to be confused with the historic 1916 signatories but named instead after characters in Ulysses.

Elsewhere, by almost complete contrast, Queneau’s arm’s-length interest in Ireland also extended to translating Tomás Ó Criomhthain’s An t-Oileánach into French.

Juvisy’s most famous resident for many years, however, was Camille Flammarion (1842–1925), astronomer, novelist, and holder of unusual theories about life, death, and the universe.

Which may be where van Gogh comes in.

Like many of the painter’s greatest works, The Starry Night was completed in the mental hospital at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence and is a view of the local night sky. But art historians have long puzzled over the giant spiral shape that dominates it, which bears a strong resemblance to what astronomers call the M51 or “Whirlpool” galaxy.

Part of the explanation may be Flammarion, who along with being a leading astronomer of his time was also a popular writer of science fiction, with mystic tendencies.

A belief in the interplanetary migration of souls and suchlike may have cost his job at the Paris Observatory. But he studied the sky from his own private observatory in Juvisy, and combined hard science with works of the imagination and investigations into psychic phenomena.

Flammarion’s writings, as in this rhetorical question, convey some of the awe with which van Gogh must have gazed at the stars over Saint-Remy: “What intelligent being, what being capable of responding emotionally to a beautiful sight, can look at the jagged silvery lunar crescent trembling in the azure sky [...] and not be struck by it in an intensely pleasurable way, not feel cut off from everyday life here on earth and transported towards that first stop on the celestial journeys?”

That’s from Astronomy Populaire (1880), in which Flammarion also argued that amateur astronomy could be a force for peace. If more people knew the “profound inner pleasure” that awaited those who studied the heavens, he wrote, “the whole of Europe would be covered with telescopes instead of bayonets”.

Astronomie Populaire was his biggest selling book and art historians think it highly plausible that van Gogh may have been among the many to see it.

If so, the painter must also have noted its reproduction of a drawing of the H51 Galaxy by the man who had first noticed its spiral structure. That of course was William Parsons, third Earl of Rosse (1800-67), who made the discovery via what was then the world’s most powerful telescope, the “Leviathan of Parsonstown” at Birr, Co Offaly.

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