Don’t Bore Me with Art History, Tell Me a Story

Starry Night was painted by Dutch Post-Impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh. His technique-

Stop right there! Why does art history have to be boring?! I could almost see your eyes glaze over when I wrote, “His technique.”

As with anything in life, different parts of the story appeal to different people. Someone studying how to paint or become an art appraiser would want to know his techniques, the paints he used, and his use of light. 

But that’s only part of the story.

The Story of Starry Night

Vincent Van Gogh didn’t experience the fame he has today. I could only imagine how overwhelmed he would be at the Van Gogh Experience in San Francisco.

He suffered severe depression and was institutionalized after cutting off his ear. One night at the asylum, with a bandage on the side of his head, he looked out his window and painted Starry Night.

The story doesn’t end there. 

Several decades after Starry Night was painted, scientists discovered that it accurately portrays turbulence. Van Gogh never knew what it was like to have your stomach drop during turbulence or what it was like to fly. Yet, he looked at the night sky from an asylum after cutting off his ear and painted Starry Night

The Magic of Art Museums

Visiting an art museum is the best way to time travel, change your perspective, and inspire creativity.

I’d have to travel across the country to The Museum of Modern Art in New York to see Starry Night, but, I only have to travel 2 hours to the Legion of Honor Art Museum in San Francisco to see one of Van Gogh’s controversial works, Still Life with Fruit and Chestnuts (1886). There was a time when people debated whether it was really one of Van Gogh’s works because it was so different from his other ones.

“Thomas Campbell, who moved from New York’s Metropolitan Museum to become director of the San Francisco museums last November, says the painting demonstrates “Van Gogh’s experimentation with techniques learned from studying Flemish old masters as well as the Impressionists’”


I remember the first time I saw the painting in the Impressionists room just feet away from Claude Monet’s Water Lilies, thinking, that’s Van Gogh, but it’s a still life painting? I didn’t think he painted still lifes. Turns out I wasn’t the only one who thought that, but they determined it was painted while he was in Paris testing out other styles of painting.

Even Vincent van Gogh experimented with his craft.

Paintings by Van Gogh and Monet aren’t the only reason to visit the Legion of Honor. On the floor below you’ll find a 4,000-year-old carved wood figure. 4000…years…old. The figure was an ancient Egyptian Royal scribe called Seneb. It predates most of what we know and it’s near the women’s bathroom. 

We can literally time travel on our way to the museum’s gift shop from the bathroom. Imagine what inspired this creation and what had to happen for it to endure the test of time.

Art Influencing Art

If you love beauty in history, you should visit art museums, but if you’re a creator, it’s a necessity. 

Brian laughing at the painting, Van Gogh by Michael Godard we bought for our 26th anniversary.

I can’t help but laugh at the painting above of a pimento olive. In case you can’t see the pic, in one hand, the olive is holding a bucket of red paint spilling on the floor. In the other hand, it’s holding a paintbrush, adding finishing touches to Sunflowers by Vincent Van Gogh. The bottom of one of its feet is covered in blue from walking through spilled paint. The wall has gray wallpaper, torn in spots but covered with Van Gogh paintings. One is Starry Night, and the other is Van Gogh Self Portrait, 1889. But in this painting, Van Gogh’s ear is an olive’s ear! It’s green and shiny, like the olive who painted it. 

My husband, Brian, and I bought the painting, Van Gogh by Michael Godard, to celebrate our anniversary and to remember our trip to Paris. And to laugh, because who would think to have an olive recreate Van Gogh’s famous works? And the ear! There’s even a bandaid on the olive’s freaking head where his ear should be!! 

In January 2020, right before the pandemic closed everything down, Brian and I celebrated our 24th wedding anniversary in Paris.  We saw Van Gogh Self Portrait, 1889 at the Musee d’Orsay during our visit. The entire museum was breathtaking. They devoted a good half of a room to works by Van Gogh. 

Michael Godard isn’t the only artist influenced by other artists. 

Woody Allen created an entire cast of writers, musicians, and artists in his film, Midnight in Paris, including Pablo Picaso, Ernest Hemmingway, and Salvador Dali.

Technology Influencing Art and Vise Versa

Just like anything else, art history has layers. The deeper you go, the more technical you get. Sure, you learn about Van Gogh’s technique, the type of mediums he uses. But there are seemingly inconsequential but just as poignant facts you could discover. Like why did Van Gogh paint the way he did when his paintings used to be so realistic?

The answer is simple. Cameras replaced the need for realistic paintings and a couple of years later, paint tubes allowed painters to paint anywhere. In 1839, ​​Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre invented process that allowed photography called the daguerreotype. A couple of years later, in 1841, portrait artist John Goffe Rand brought us paint tubes

Essentially, two guys who never knew each other revolutionized the world like the iPhone did for our times. And it’s continuing. Michael Godard, who obviously is a fan of Van Gogh, started creating NFTs as well.

Art history is about the story behind the piece and can transform your life. It will unlock the creativity bubbling inside you, whether it’s art, writing, or, in ​​Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre’s case, invent something that could revolutionize the way we see everything. 

I think I’ll go to the Crocker Museum later today to see another Dutch Masters, Rembrandt van Rijn. They have a drawing of his called Liberation of St. Peter from the mid-1630s. 

What’s in your neighborhood?