artNotes from Hyde House: Vincent Van Gogh’s stars over our small town

Vincent Van Gogh / Café Terrace at Night

In our small town we look up at our sparkling summer evening skies, and they remind us of Vincent Van Gogh’s magnificent 1889 “Starry Night”.

On a recent trip to New York City when my husband David and I stood before this masterpiece on view today in the Museum of Modern Art, I thought of the artist who made this wonder, and I remembered the soulful life he had lived. Immediately the poignant lyrics of “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)”, penned and performed by Don McLean, came to me.

The American singer-songwriter McLean, best known for “American Pie”, his 1971 hit song that became a cultural touchstone, was interviewed in 2010 by The Daily Telegraph journalist, Helen Brown. He told Brown of the inspiration behind his “Vincent” lyrics:


“In the autumn of 1970 I had a job singing in the [Berkshire] school system, playing my guitar in classrooms,” he said. “I was sitting on the veranda one morning, reading a biography of Van Gogh, and suddenly I knew I had to write a song arguing that he wasn’t crazy. He had an illness and so did his brother Theo. This made [his life] different, in my mind, to the garden variety of ‘crazy’—because [as was commonly thought] he was rejected by a woman. So I sat down with a print of ‘Starry Night’ and wrote out the lyrics on a paper bag.”

(“Vincent” was written by McLean while he was living in an apartment full of antiques in the Sedgwick House, a beautiful Federal style house in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The Sedgwick family included Edie Sedgwick, a colorful figure whom pop artist Andy Warhol had filmed at his Factory in the 1960s.)

McLean explained the inspiration for his lyrics, “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. Van Gogh painted “Starry Night” during one of the most difficult periods of his life, while he was locked up in an asylum at Saint-Rémy. He had to paint the scene from memory, not outdoors as he preferred.

Journalist Brown observes that “with [a] bittersweet palette of major and minor chords, McLean’s soothing melody is one of high emotion recollected in tranquility. The lyrical list of colours—the ‘swirling clouds in violet haze’, the eyes of ‘China blue’ and the ‘snowy linen land’—evoke a mental slide show of the artist’s work.”

Vincent (Starry, Starry Night) by Don McLean, 1971

Starry, starry night
Paint your palette blue and grey
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….

There are many versions of “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)” performed by various musicians. I still like Don McLean’s rendering the best, though there’s a very popular one performed by Josh Groban. If you haven’t heard “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)” recently or ever, take time to listen now.

Go to youtube at Queue up your iPhone or ipad. Find a quiet place to sit and be comfortable. Clear your mind and listen with your heart and know this great painter as never before.

Having taken in these lyrics again and again, they have become and will forever remain a go-to happy place within me. I hear the lyrics and I see Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” in my mind’s eye and then images of his other paintings begin to flow before me. Always I am captivated by “Café Terrace at Night”, the first painting in which Van Gogh used a background filled with stars in an evening sky—the painting made in Arles, France, in 1988, the year before Van Gogh was committed to the Saint-Rémy asylum and the year before our old house was built here in our small town of Carthage.

Today when at night I look up at the star-spangled summertime canopy over our small town, I am blissfully aware that the canopy above us is the same backdrop as the one we see in the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night Skies.

I am grateful for the heavenly beauty that blessed and inspired this greater painter and blesses us still.