When I was in college, I had a print of what was then my favorite painting that I put up in every dorm and fraternity house room I inhabited during those four years. It has retained a special place in my heart ever since: Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night.
I’m not sure what I found so compelling at that time about the painting, other than it just seemed to be so alive to me. I also think that a large part of my interest was attributable to Don McLean’s song, Vincent, which I loved, and which of course was inspired by this painting.
Some may wonder why I’m writing about something that meant a lot to me 25+ years ago, i.e., what is its relevance today? Part of the answer lies in what I have expressed before, i.e., that I find myself, during this period of coming out, not only affirming my sexuality but also rediscovering an identity that was deliberately submerged when I joined the LDS church, then further asphyxiated when I got married. Finding my true self, which has been encased in a false persona for most of my adult life, involves in part going back to my youth, seeking meaning today in that which I found meaning then.
As I have recently thought about Starry Night, I find that this painting speaks to me as much or more today as it did all those years ago as a relatively inexperienced youth. As I look at it today, what impresses me the most is all of the colorful activity filling the night sky, completely overshadowing the sleepy village below (whose inhabitants are no doubt totally ignorant of the magnificent scene overhead). Also impressive are the swirling and radiant colors that breathe life and radiate intensity, imbuing the painting with a palpable sense of life. At a time when I am (re-)discovering the brilliance of life, this work speaks to me in a new and powerful way, a way in which it could not have in the days of my youth.
The scene in the painting is the view from van Gogh’s sanitorium window and largely depicts the village of Saint-Rémy. Van Gogh, who suffered from periods of mental illness (and perhaps epilepsy), had committed himself in May 1889 to a hospital at Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, a former monastery in Saint-Rémy. (He had, five months earlier, in a delusional fit, advanced on his fellow artist and friend (and possible lover?), Paul Gaugin, with a knife, only to turn a razor blade on himself and slice off part of his ear.)
That summer of 1889, van Gogh painted during the day the scene of the night sky that he recalled seeing the night before from his barred window in his cell at Saint-Paul. A year later, he left Saint-Paul, moved to a town near Paris and died two months later as a result of self-inflicted gunshot wounds.
From Don McLean’s website, we learn that he wrote Vincent, also known as “Starry, Starry Night,” in the fall of 1970, while he was working for the Berkshire School District, in western Massachusetts. He was living in the Sedgwick House, a beautiful Federal style house in Stockbridge. The inspiration for the song came to him one morning while he was sitting on the veranda looking at a book about Vincent van Gogh. As he studied a print of Van Gogh’s painting “Starry Night,” he realized that a song could be written about the artist through the painting.
“The more I thought about it,’ wrote McLean, “the more interesting and challenging the idea became. I put down the book and picked up my guitar, which was never far away, and started fiddling around, trying to get a handle on this idea, while the print of “Starry Night” stared up at me. Looking at the picture, I realized that the essence of the artist’s life is his art. And so, I let the painting write the song for me.”
The following video clip, featuring a live performance of Vincent and illustrated by many of van Gogh’s works, is the version that appears on McLean’s website. Both the song and the painting are, in my opinion, beautiful.
“I must continue to follow the path I take now. If I do nothing, if I study nothing, if I cease searching, then, woe is me, I am lost. That is how I look at it — keep going, keep going come what may.
“But what is your final goal, you may ask. That goal will become clearer, will emerge slowly but surely, much as the rough draught turns into a sketch, and the sketch into a painting through the serious work done on it, through the elaboration of the original vague idea and through the consolidation of the first fleeting and passing thought.”
- Vincent van Gogh, July 1880