Was Van Gogh inspired by Hokusai’s The Great Wave when he painted his Starry Night? The link between these two masterpieces of 19th-century art does not seem to have been made before. But Vincent was a great admirer of this Japanese print, writing vividly to his brother Theo: Hokusai’s “waves are claws, the boat is caught in them, you can feel it”.

In the Hokusai print, the wave towers over the volcanic peak of Mount Fuji, whereas in Van Gogh’s painting the swirling mass in the sky hurtles towards the more gentle slopes of Les Alpilles, the hills which lie just behind the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, where he was then staying. Through the bars of his cell, the Dutchman would frequently look out towards Les Alpilles and gaze up into the night sky.

Tumbling across the centre of Van Gogh’s sky is the Starry Night painting’s most extraordinary feature—a whorl of flickering brushstrokes that roll across the canvas, imparting a strong sensation of movement to the scene. Vincent could well have been thinking of the sea and he had visited the Mediterranean a few weeks before he wrote the letter about The Great Wave. The two works also share a similar colouring of rich blues. Read more