“The sight of the stars makes me dream”: The Impact of Astronomy in Art

Sarah Johnston discusses the connection between arts and the stars

As an astronomer, I am always concerned that I am not ‘artsy’ enough for my hobbies. October 4th marks the beginning of World Space Week, a global celebration of astronomy, aimed at capturing the public’s curiosity when it comes to our universe and our place in it, so I want to use this chance to show the innate connection between my two top interests: the stars and creative production.

Astronomy and art have a symbiotic relationship: astronomy inspires art, and art helps improve astronomy. The first real appearance of scientific astronomy in art was in Giotto’s “Adoration of the Magi” where instead of following a star, the three wise men are pictured as following a burning object with a long tail to find the baby Jesus in the stable. This is an early depiction of Halley’s Comet, a comet which is visible from Earth every 75 years, and the European Space Agency’s mission to explore the comet was called ‘Giotto’ to give recognition for this piece which is widely regarded as the first-ever scientific drawing of the comet.

Possibly the most famous astronomical art is Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’. When you look at the painting, you can see that Van Gogh cares about the astronomical accuracy of what he is portraying. Most of the stars are portrayed as a solid central circle with small outlines, but there is one ‘star’ on the horizon which has a very small centre with a larger outline and is much brighter than the other stars. Many may overlook this as a creative decision, or even a mistake on Van Gogh’s part, but it is in fact a genius portrayal. This ‘star’ is in fact the planet Venus, which is one of the brightest visible planets and was on the Eastern horizon of Saint-Remy-de-Provence at the time Van Gogh painted this piece. Above Venus, the other stars actually form the constellation Aries, which Van Gogh manages to portray amazingly close to the actual shape of the stars in the sky.

Image(s): Museum of Modern Art

If you look closely, you can also see Van Gogh’s attention to detail in the varying colours of the stars: some of which appear more red or white than others. He is quoted as having said, that certain stars are citron-yellow, others have a pink glow, or a green, blue and forget-me-not brilliance”. The colour of stars are a key factor used by astronomers to find out about the star’s age, size, and metallicity. Van Gogh’s meticulous attention to detail in this facet is exceptional.

Beyond this, ‘Starry Night’ is especially famous for the brushstroke technique used, with the sky portrayed as swirls and the stars and moon having luminous outlines. This is once again incredibly scientifically accurate as it represents the ‘haze’ around astronomical objects from the atmosphere. It is incredibly difficult to get a perfectly clear view of a star from Earth without disruption of the light from movement in the atmosphere, hence why many telescopes are in space. If you look at a very dark night sky with your bare eyes you may well be able to experience the same ‘haze’ from luminous objects like the moon. If we consider that this was before the time of streetlights and heavy light pollution, it is likely that the sky was actually dark enough for Van Gogh to see this haze for himself.

On the other hand, as well as the stars being a muse for creatives, artists themselves contributed to astronomy in their work. Galileo was an elegant mix of art and science, using telescopes to observe the night sky, but using artistic techniques like perspective and chiaroscuro (the contrast between light and dark) to accurately map the stars and the surface of the moon. Before digital cameras and CCDs, all astronomers relied on artists, or their own art skills, to record their observations. Even now, astronomers and artists work together to capture, piece together and edit photographs of some of the most beautiful structures in our universe. Photographs from the Hubble Space Telescope have been printed onto clothing, used in artworks, and recreated by painters.

Although astronomy and art can seem like polar opposites, next time you can I would encourage you to take a moment and look upwards at the beauty of the night sky. Whether the immense black seems daunting to you or you find your imagination captured by the beauty of the lights within it, don’t overlook astronomy’s significance to art – or art’s significance to astronomy.

When it comes to astronomy, I cannot agree more with Van Gogh when he says “the sight of the stars makes me dream” and I hope they never stop.