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Vincent | The Song and the Artist

It’s been a busy semester so far and I would love to have another holiday again! Right now, it feels great to relax in a bit of song and art. This brings me back to a conversation that I had with my mum about that familiar refrain “starry starry night”…

I went to look it up and it’s Don McLean’s classic Vincent from 1971. An oldie, but still a goodie! Lyrics are below. :)

Starry, starry night
Paint your palette blue and gray
Look out on a summer’s day
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul

Shadows on the hills
Sketch the trees and the daffodils
Catch the breeze and the winter chills
In colors on the snowy linen land

Now, I understand, what you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free
They would not listen, they did not know how
Perhaps they’ll listen now

Starry, starry night
Flaming flowers that brightly blaze
Swirling clouds in violet haze
Reflect in Vincent’s eyes of china blue

Colors changing hue
Morning fields of amber grain
Weathered faces lined in pain
Are soothed beneath the artist’s loving hand

Now, I understand, what you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free
They would not listen, they did not know how
Perhaps they’ll listen now

For they could not love you
But still your love was true
And when no hope was left inside
On that starry, starry night

You took your life as lovers often do
But I could have told you, Vincent
This world was never meant for one
As beautiful as you

Starry, starry night
Portraits hung in empty halls
Frame-less heads on nameless walls
With eyes that watch the world and can’t forget

Like the strangers that you’ve met
The ragged men in ragged clothes
The silver thorn of bloody rose
Lie crushed and broken on the virgin snow

Now, I think I know what you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free
They would not listen, they’re not listening still
Perhaps they never will

The Starry Night
Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night, 1889

Of course, that refrain brings to mind van Gogh’s classic painting The Starry Night. I’ve always loved the big swirly background that I feel is so atmospheric and really pulls you into the picture. This painting could arguably be van Gogh’s most well-known work, especially coupled with the familiar song and all.

To back up a bit, van Gogh (1853-1890) was a Dutchman who moved to Paris, and later the South of France, where he settled into his artistic style and produced his greatest works. In his short life and career, he only fully developed his style in the later years of his life starting from about 1888 till his death in 1890. That style so familiar to many of us is characterized by bright color, strong outlines and broken brushstrokes. While he might not have had the best technical skill, he produced a wealth of artworks, including figure painting/sketches, portraits, landscapes, and still life.

Red Poppies and Daisies

Vincent van Gogh, Red Poppies and Daisies, 1890

Just earlier this month, there was a Poppies and Daisies painting by van Gogh on show at Poly Gallery, another painting in van Gogh’s series of paintings of poppies and daisies. Viewing a van Gogh (and Picasso) was of course a delight! Photographic reproduction is of great quality these days, but nothing can beat viewing an artwork in real life. I don’t think I realized it while viewing it at the time, but I found van Gogh’s flowers very natural. His painting simply looked effortlessly done.

When looking at photographs of his artworks though, it’s easy to see that van Gogh wasn’t exactly going for a highly naturalistic effect in his paintings. Colors are darker or brighter than expected, and work to heighten the intensity of the picture. If we were to translate the colors from his paintings to real life, it would be highly unnaturalistic.


Vincent van Gogh, Sower, 1888

Add to that his exaggeration of certain shapes and forms like the giant yellow sun in Sower, or the swirling stars/clouds in The Starry Night. Since van Gogh was clearly not aiming to paint in the likeness of reality, his works have been interpreted as having religious or spiritual connotations (e.g. Sower) or containing metaphors about life and death (e.g. The Starry Night).

Don McLean’s lyrics doesn’t stray much from the general perception of van Gogh – the tortured artist who created such great artworks in his genius insanity and creativity, but eventually committed suicide. It’s a beautiful song, and captures the way van Gogh is shrouded in mystery and tragedy.

Wheatfield with Cypress Tree

Vincent van Gogh, Wheatfield with Cypress Tree, 1888

I generally agree with the above-mentioned view of van Gogh, but I’m not convinced by the religious argument (although van Gogh’s father was in fact a preacher). I do find other interpretations of van Gogh’s contemplations of life and death interesting. Not so much an indication of his eventual suicide, but personal reflections on life.

There’s always a melodramatic angle in reading van Gogh’s works, but don’t you think that van Gogh’s works are smoothing in a way? There’s a sadness about his works, I think, but there’s also a calmness to it that makes me stop and think.

While covering van Gogh in class, I got the chance to discover van Gogh’s letters to his younger brother, Theo van Gogh, an art dealer and big supporter of Vincent’s works. (Students of art history are such snoops reading artists’ old letters. ;D) In Vincent’s letters, he seems to me very earnest and focused on his work, mostly writing about his working process or describing some of his works that he’d painted to his brother. He definitely didn’t sound like a crazy man, but again, I suppose these things are hard to say.

The Night Café

Vincent van Gogh, The Night Café, 1888

Albert Aurier, an art critic and supporter of the growing Symbolist movement at the time, tried to count van Gogh in as a Symbolist artist by writing that his works were in line with Symbolist Ideas and the abstract, etc. Van Gogh however rejected this idea of his being a Symbolist, and resolutely placed himself as an artist who was just doing his own thing. Which I find pretty awesome. :D

Van Gogh is hence categorized within the Post-Impressionists, a rough grouping of artists who became influential after the wave of Impressionism had passed. They include Paul Gauguin, Paul Cézanne, Georges Seurat and more, all of whom had an individual style to their work.

Café Terrace at Night

Vincent van Gogh, Café Terrace, Place du Forum, Arles / Café Terrace at Night, 1888

I’d always known van Gogh’s famous works and this familiar song, but learning about his works and his background made his works so much more fascinating to me. Van Gogh was really one of a kind, and it’s nice to be able to look upon his work and think about what he’d wanted to achieve through them.

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1 Comment

  • Reply Larry

    Good pick of Van Gogh’s works. In addition to Van Gogh’s painting style, you help me to know more about him.

    January 15, 2016 at 5:59 PM
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