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Being canonized can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, your work is crystallized into the creative imagination of generations. But on the other, your work risks being simplified, your personality mythified, your ambitions boxed in. 

Two of our newest galleries feature Vincent Van Gogh, an artist whose mythology now nearly precedes his genius. He’s an exemplar of both the artist whose fame only came posthumously, and the artist whose genius is inextricably linked to mental illness.

But Van Gogh’s talents were, at times, beyond comprehension, and remembering him just by an unexplainable action, or by delayed recognition, underserves his work’s timeless luminosity—literally.

As noted by Brain Pickings, TED, and NPR, Van Gogh had an unusual tap into the physicality of turbulence (especially how eddies of dust and gas spin off and break down into smaller ones)—most notably in one of his most famous works, The Starry Night. Physicists have found that the eddies depicted in his more (mentally) turbulent period mirror what rigorous equations would predict.

But there’s another physical effect at play here too: luminance. Van Gogh was adept at varying brightness in a way that played tricks on our eyes, which is just another reason his paintings seem to shimmer even while static.

It’s easy to get lost in so many of his paintings, and it’s surreal to imagine him also getting lost in the creation of them, connecting to some aspect of the natural world that would still stump scientists a century later.