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Boime asserts that while Van Gogh never mentioned astronomer Camille Flammarion in his letters, he believes that Van Gogh must have been aware of Flammarion’s popular illustrated publications, which included drawings of spiral nebulae (as galaxies were then called) as seen and photographed through telescopes. Boime interprets the swirling figure in the central portion of the sky in The Starry Night to represent either a spiral galaxy or a comet, photographs of which had also been published in popular media.He asserts that the only non-realistic elements of the painting are the village and the swirls in the sky. These swirls represent Van Gogh’s understanding of the cosmos as a living, dynamic place.

Harvard astronomer Charles A. Whitney conducted his own astronomical study of The Starry Night contemporaneously with but independent of Boime (who spent almost his entire career at U.C.L.A.). While Whitney does not share Boime’s certainty with regard to the constellation Aries, he concurs with Boime on the visibility of Venus in Provence at the time the painting was executed. He also sees the depiction of a spiral galaxy in the sky, although he gives credit for the original to Anglo-Irish astronomer William Parsons, Lord Rosse, whose work Flammarion reproduced.

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