The Incredible Math Behind Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ that Took 125 Years to Discover (Video)


    Art enthusiasts everywhere are familiar with the iconic 1889 painting ‘The Starry Night’ by Vincent van Gogh. The artist battled throughout his life with a number of mental illnesses including depression, anxiety and, according to some experts, bipolar disorder, eventually claiming his life at the young age of 37.

    At the height of this lifelong battle, while staying in a mental asylum, van Gogh created the beautiful and captivating ‘The Starry Night,’ depicts a star-filled night sky over a peaceful village. In a letter to his brother Theo, van Gogh described his inspiration for the painting, writing: “This morning I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise, with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big.”

    Source: Musée d’Orsay via Wikimedia Commons


    The painting now hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, on display for anyone that wants to take in the stunning image. On their website, the museum describes the painting as “a symbolic landscape full of movement, energy, and light,” a description that appears incredibly accurate when viewing the popular image. Studied by art students globally, it is only in recent years that experts have now discovered an amazing detail about the painting – it depicts one of the most incredible and complex concepts in physical science: Fluid Turbulence.

    This new discovery raises questions about the mental state of the artist during his time in the asylum, allowing a true glimpse at the genius behind his mental health struggles. Van Gogh was able to view the world around him in a way that differs from yours and mine, allowing him to perceive the concept of motion in a way that the average brain would never consider.

    Source: Van Gogh Studio


    It is this concept that caught the attention of Natalya St. Clair, author of ‘The Art of Mental Calculation’. After studying the painting at great length, St. Clair presented an incredible talk for TED-Ed, discussing the mathematical concept, the reasons why it is so difficult for the average human mind to process and why van Gogh’s psychotic episodes may have provided a unique insight into the way in which this concept works.

    She explains the discovery, stating: “In 2004, using the Hubble Space Telescope, scientists saw the eddies of a distant cloud of dust and gas around a star, and it reminded them of Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night.’ This motivated scientists from Mexico, Spain, and England to study the luminance in Van Gogh’s paintings in detail. They discovered that there is a distinct pattern of turbulent fluid structures close to Kolmogorov’s equation hidden in many of van Gogh’s paintings.”

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