125 Years, and Millions of Views, and No One Noticed This About Starry Night–Until Now

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Vincent Van Gogh lived during a time of artistic upheaval. Photography was making traditional representational painting and portraiture obsolete. Artists struggled to make their work relevant. Many failed. Others, like Van Gogh, pioneered new ways of painting.

Van Gogh (seen below) may have captured something even more allusive than relevance. In the years before his suicide, Van Gogh painted under the influence of a growing psychosis. In these late paintings, scientists are seeing something that cameras can’t capture.


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The video below explains this phenomena in more scientifically accurate detail, though the concept can be broken down easily enough. Van Gogh, it would seem, had–in his mania–access to something many couldn’t see (unless he painted it).


Fluid turbulence is hardly understood by science. We can see its effects in practical examples, and simple illustrations, but even this understanding came long after Van Gogh. And scientists are still uncertain as to what causes these patterns.


In short, fluid moves in odd circular patterns. Large circular patterns spin off smaller patterns. Think about eddies that appear in white water.


Fluid turbulence can be seen in cloud of dust in space, and physical clouds on planet surfaces. The phenomena is observed now with telescopes. Which brings us to Van Gogh.


Starry Night has patterns of impressionistic swirls. These swirls interact with one another in a way that looks like fluid turbulence. There’s no way Van Gogh could have used the theory of fluid turbulence to paint the light swirls around the stars of Starry Night, and yet he’s captured the mathematical complexity of the theory very closely.


This has led scientists to believe Van Gogh, when he was having psychotic episodes, could see or sense this pattern in nature. Oddly, his paintings from earlier periods–even those with swirls and circles, don’t reflect this relationship of swirls to one another in any way.


Scientists have gone back to paintings of the period and looked for more evidence of the theory at work, but have come up empty. When Van Gogh was institutionalized, the swirls appear. They’re not present in the work of his peers, either, even those who also suffered from mental instability.

Watch this video. It is complex, but well explained. It will require you to think a bit, but it is worth it.