Vincent: Starry, Starry Night

Love is probably the deepest emotion one can experience as a human being. It makes us both vulnerable and not often, lost… and desperate.

This was how Don McLean was able to empathize with the sad fate that the 19th century Dutch post-impressionist painter, Vincent Van Gogh suffered. He shares this to us in his popular folk classic, Vincent.

Vincent is obviously McLean’s personal tribute to Van Gogh.

The song’s opening line immediately transports our mind’s to Van Gogh’s iconic masterpiece, Starry Night:

“Starry, starry night,
Paint your palette blue and gray.”

McLean then describes Vincent as looking out on a summer’s day “with eyes that know the darkness in my soul.” This was empathy.

This empathy is reinforced by the song’s refrain,

“Now I understand (think I know) what you tried to say to me.”

McLean’s use of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person pronouns give us an idea who he is referring to in the song: 1st person pronouns, me and my, apply to himself; 2nd person, you and your, to Van Gogh; and 3rd person, they and them, to the people both in Van Gogh’s time who “would not listen” and ours who “are not listening still”.

There are references to other works of Van Gogh embedded in the song, it’s not entirely about the Starry Night. He mentions “trees and the daffodils” and “the snowy linen land”, “morning fields of amber grain” and “weathered faces lined in pain” none of which were in the Starry Night landscape.

However, McLean knew that Starry Night conveyed a message — he saw it not just as mere paint. Its themes conveyed Van Gogh’s world view — a convergence of his theology, his aspirations, hopes, and desperation.

McLean summarized Van Gogh’s desperation in these poignant lines:

“And when no hope was left inside
On that starry, starry night,
You took your life as lovers often do.”

Don McLean, like Van Gogh, was a romantic who expressed his world view in his art, his songs.

In his hit song And I Love You So, he writes,

“The book of life is brief,
And once a page is read,
All but love is dead —
That is my belief

That is my belief, McLean says: All is dead, but love. Nothing has meaning, except that thing that “yearns within to grow beyond infatuation” (lyrics from McLean’s song If We Try).

Don McLean experienced love, and deeply felt it. So did Van Gogh.

Starry Night

Starry Night is, by far, the most popular painting by the 19th century Dutch post-impressionist painter Van Gogh. It was his magnum opus — his most important work — as later judged by observers. Van Gogh himself, however, thought the painting was a failure. But Starry Night would be the painting that the world would associate with the illustrious name Vincent Van Gogh.

But there is another well-known painting named Starry Night, namely, Starry Night Over the Rhône, which one shouldn’t confuse with the Starry Night. Van Gogh painted Starry Night Over the Rhône (September 1888) at Arles, less than a year before he painted Starry Night (June 1889) while confined at the Saint Paul De Mausole after he had cut off his ear. Starry Night Over the Rhône gives us a backdrop as to the nocturnal (night time) painting style Van Gogh had been experimenting on at the time.

He wrote to his younger brother, Theo, his financial backer, about Starry Night Over the Rhône in this manner,

“The sky is green-blue, the water is royal blue… The town is blue and violet. The gaslight is yellow, and its reflections are red-gold and go right down to green-bronze… Against the green-blue field of the sky the Great Bear had a green and pink sparkle whose discreet paleness contrasts with the harsh gold of the gaslight.”

Van Gogh was a prodigious artist who keenly understood the relationship of colors, shades, and contrasts to convey his messages. Messages that lodged deep in his thoughts.

Four things meet the eye outright in Starry Night, among other finer details. One, the most obvious, the orbs and swirls — the starry night itself. Two, the color contrasts; because it is a nocturnal painting, the contrast of yellow and harsh gold against the dark backdrop of blue to violet immediately catches the attention. Three, the spires of the dominant Cypress tree on the left foreground, and that of the church steeple at the center — both touch the heavens above. And lastly, the silent neighbourhood or countryside community with houses, olive groves, and cascading hills.

Amidst the mundane affairs of daily existence in ones community, there is a nature (a cypress tree shaped like a flaming fire) that reaches to the skies; and a religion (a church with a spire) that prompts one’s soul to search beyond natural, physical existence for meaning. However, there is a palpable uncertainty and foreboding judgment revealed in the heavens. Thus, there is no real assurance; but an ongoing perpetual turmoil of a troubled soul.

As Van Gogh wrote to Theo his brother regarding Starry Night, “We take death to go to a star.”

Top 10 Favourite Movies on Artists and Paintings

Top 10 Favourite Movies on Artists and Paintings

We often find artists, their paintings and works of art, in galleries and museums. But there have been wonderful and worthwhile movies made about them, their personal lives and works of art.

Here is our Top 10 Favourite Movies on Artists and Paintings:

  1. Camille Claudel (1989). The film captures the artist’s inner struggles through her bold sculptures. Camille Claudel was an independent minded artists of the late 19th century in Paris, who became a mistress of renowned sculptor Auguste Rodin (his famous sculpture, The Thinker).
  1. 2. Vincent & Theo (1990). This is a story of Van Gogh’s brief history, how he made his art, and the person who was (as it’s said) “the wind beneath his wings”, his younger brother Theo.
  2. 3. Basquiat (1996). An American graffiti artist who became popular in the 1980’s using the name SAMO. Jean-Michel Basquiat was half-Haitian, half-Puerto Rican by race. His wall graffiti was vivid, lively, and detailed, and became highly prized by art collectors.
  3. 4. Surviving Picasso (1996). Pablo Picasso’s name is most often associated to cubism, an abstract art form where reality is seen relatively. But he was also known to be a womanizer, because women were strongly attracted to him. The film exploits this.
  4. 5. Pollock (2001). Excellent story about the troubled life and skilful workmanship of American post-war abstract impressionist Jackson Pollock, how he met his wife Lee Krasner, and how she changed the future for him.
  5. 6. Frida (2002). The movie revolves around the relationships that Mexican artist Frida Kahlo works herself into, especially her affair and marriage to the famed muralist Diego Rivera. After she survived a trolley accident that almost killed her, she lives in pain and finds relief in her art.
  6. 7. Girl With A Pearl Earring (2003). This 16 year old girl, Griet, appears in Johannes Vermeer’s 17th century painting Girl with a Pearl Earring. She was hired as a maid by the artist to care for his 6 children. The earring’s however belonged to Vermeer’s wife, who suspects that Vermeer was having an affair with the girl.
  7. 8. Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010). This is the work of graffiti artist Bansky on video tapes filmed by Frenchman Thierry Guetta. A documentary type film that takes the viewer to the illegal art world of vandals and political activists.
  8. 9. Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present (2012). This documentary highlights the unconventional art of Abramovic. She is a warm person, and a seriously gifted and inventive artist.
  9. 10. Mr. Turner (2014). A biography of Cockney landscape painter, J.M.W. Turner. He was known as a “painter of lights” and belonged to the school of Romantics.