“Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)” – 2.Analysis

Starry Night Over the Rhone.
Starry Night Over the Rhone.

VERSE 1

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

The lyrics refer to some of Van Gogh’s paintings, of which Starry Night is probably the most famous. Instantly recognizable because of its unique style Starry Night was painted while Vincent was hospitalized in Saint-Rémy and his behaviour was very unpredictable, due to the severity of his attacks. Unlike most of Van Gogh’s works, Starry Night was painted from memory and not outdoors as was Vincent’s preference (“Look out on a summer’s day.”)
When he first entered the asylum, he painted mainly from his room or the courtyard garden, but later he could go farther.However, he was not allowed to go outside at night, and had to paint night scenes such as this from memory.

Somebody is addressing the artist, and this may be an inner voice inviting him to paint.
Early in his painting career, under the influence of the great Dutch classic painters Rembrandt and Frans Hals, his palette was full of dark sad colors, but later on, the brighter blue and yellow dominated his paintings.

When he was institutionalized, Van Gogh painted in his room, and needed to “look out” to see his subjects., but he wished he could be freed from the hospital, instead of being allowed only to watch the outside world from inside.
The verse includes references to his landscape works, in lines such as “sketch the trees and the daffodils”, while the two last lines may refer to Van Gogh’s “Two Peasant Women Digging In a Snow-Covered Field at Sunset” since McLean mentions the breeze and the winter chills.

CHORUS

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

In the first two choruses, there are references to Van Gogh’s sanity and then his suicide. Throughout his life, Van Gogh was plagued with mental disorders, including severe depression, hallucinations, and delusions that he was being poisoned: he was diagnosed as insane and incarcerated in an asylum from 1889-90. But McLean realizes Van Gogh’s suffering was only made worse by confinement., during which he produced many paintings, including “Irises” and “The Starry Night” that inspired this song.

“How you suffered for your sanity” refers to the schizophrenic disorder from which Van Gogh suffered. (He eventually “took [his] life as lovers often do.”), however, through his art, the artist tried to enlighten others – “to set them free”.

“They would not listen/They did not know how” refers to Van Gogh’s family and some associates who did not recognize his greatness during his lifetime, and were critical of his kindness to the wretched.
Due to the general lack of reception by his contemporaries, towards the end of his life, he became doubtful about his art:
“It is absolutely certain that I shall never do important things”, he wrote in a letter to a Paris critic who praised his work.
When he was alive, he was able to sell only one picture (The Red Vineyard). His brother Theo, an art dealer, believed in him, supported him most of his life.

VERSE 2

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

In this verse there are references to other paintings.

• Vincent Van Gogh had three “Starry Night” drawings, because he also Painted “Starry Night over the Rhone” and the “Cafe Terrace at Night”, both painted in 1888 in Arles

• “Flaming flowers that brightly blaze”: The Sunflower Series. In that famous set of works Van Gogh employs luminous orange and yellow colours and seems to create powerful images of the sun itself, flaming and blazing, contained in the flowers and the painting.

• “Swirling clouds in violet haze”: Starry Night and Wheat Field with Cypresses. The wind in Starry Night may be the Mistral, a seasonal wind that passes through France every year (in some cases it is supposed to drive people mad). In the second painting, the dark green cypress tree in the corner may be an omen of death, since these trees are often placed in cemeteries.

“Vincent’s eyes of china blue” refer to his self-portraits Although his eyes were blue, he would often change their hue to reflect his own moods and emotions.

“Field of amber grain”: Wheat Fields with Crows. This is one of Van Gogh’s darker creations: the black crows over the glowing fields with the threatening dark night encroaching are reflections of the stormy times in his life and mind.

• “Weathered faces lined in pain/ are soothed beneath the artist’s loving hand” These lines may allude to Van Gogh’s self-portraits, suggesting that the artist may have found some sort of consolation in creating portraits of himself or to the pain in the faces of “The Potato Eaters”, which depicts a hard-working Dutch farming family sitting in semi-darkness and eating their meager meal

BRIDGE

For they could not love you
But still your love was true
And when no hope was left in sight
On that starry, starry night
You took your life, as lovers often do
But I could’ve told you Vincent
This world was never meant for
One as beautiful as you

This is Van Gogh’s tragic death. Love may refer to his compassion to the underprivileged members of his community, which is expressed in many of his pictures, or to the many romantic rejections from the women he loved, often because of his poverty, or else to the fact that he loved painting (but his paintings could never love him back).                            In his last letter to his brother he wrote: “Well, my own work, I am risking my life for it, and my reason has half foundered because of it.”

Van Gogh attempted suicide by shooting himself in the chest, which ultimately led to his death two days later. In describing his suicide as something “lovers … do”, McLean might be talking about the painter’s relationship with life. his passionate love for a world that simply wasn’t meant for a man like him.

VERSE 3

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

 

Vincent van Gogh said “Often it seems to me night is even more richly coloured than day” and that the desire to paint the starry sky kept haunting him
His fascination with the starry nights may have been inspired by American poet Walt Whitman’s lines from “Song of Myself” (where the poet underlines the attraction between the earth and the sky, distinct from each other, yet in harmony), because, as he wrote to his sister in 1888, “He sees…under the great starlit vault of heaven a something which after all one can only call God – and eternity in its place above the world.”.

The “portraits hung in empty halls” are there, but no one is noticing them and that solitude echoes the loneliness of all those self-portraits: Van Gogh was his only constant subject. Those poor canvasses without any recognition idle unframed: they will be at an exhibition only after his death.
Van Gogh’s artistic legacy is contained in his paintings, drawings and writings. They are everlasting and will never “forget” the style that created them. They are Van Gogh’s eyes watching the world.

The “ragged men in ragged clothes” and “how you tried to set them free” refer to his humanitarian activities and love of the socially outcast as also reflected in his work.

The “eyes that watch the world and can’t forget” also refer to his unique way of watching the sky. In 2016 scientists, after analyzing telescope images and the natural flow of light in and around the stars, realized they were similar to the flow of light in “The Starry Night”. Therefore, they thought that the artist had unknowingly mastered one of the most enigmatic concepts in physical science: fluid turbulence, because his psychosis may have allowed him to perceive relationships in motion that the normal, healthy brain doesn’t see.

The two last lines recall a short story by Oscar Wilde (his contemporary): “The Nightingale and the Rose” which talks about a lover’s unappreciated token. The nightingale sacrifices its life when a thorn pierces its heart so that the barren rose tree can produce one red rose.
This may be an allusion to van Gogh’s famous act of sacrificing his ear for unreturned love and then presenting it to a prostitute. It may also mean that his artistic works were his unappreciated gift to the world. He also sacrificed his life after having tried to show and teach others, who “would not listen” to him.

So, this is the story of Van Gogh’ eternal struggle: unrecognized as an artist until after his death.

OUTRO

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 lyrics suggest that Van Gogh was trying to “set [people] free” with the message in his work, a message that is now clear to McLean: “And now I understand what you tried to say to me.”
It is this eventual understanding that inspired McLean to write the song.

42 thoughts on ““Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)” – 2.Analysis

  1. This is painfully beautiful. Van Gogh was forever a hero of mine. I grew up in Chicago where I found a wonderful selection of his paintings at the Chicago Art Institute. I lived a number of years outside Paris. It is there that entered the Salon des Independants and got my start being a creative artist. I now live in California where artists abound. Thank you so much for the gift of your writing. I savored it intensely.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Thanks for your like of my article, “Road To Tribulation 6:” you are very kind. I really like the song that you have showcased in this article. Sometimes, I think about songs, from “way back;” I think about the title, the words, the emotions that still tug at my heart. I also talk to friends about their thoughts on the same song. Sometimes, I will watch YouTube videos of my favorite songs; when I do that, other songs seem to be dredged up from the depths of my mind, and I repeat the same thought process that led me to this latest. I really like Jim Croce’s song, “Song In A Bottle;” it really pulls up memories, emotions, appreciation for Jim Croce. Please keep your good work; I always enjoy looking through the things that you write and post.

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  3. A beautiful and sensitive song. A truly remarkable and lasting work of art. McLean is a great fan of Van Gogh’s work. At least the song is appreciated in the artist’s lifetime, unlike Van Gogh’s paintings. So sad. Thank you, Luisa, for presenting Vincent’s story through the song. Wonderful.

    Liked by 1 person

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