Besieging Van Gogh in New York City

The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh

The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh

It is humorous that the Dutch, the British, and the Americans all pronounce Van Gogh’s surname differently. Evidently, since he was Dutch himself, Vincent pronounced it “Van Gokkkkkggggghhhh.” Very Germanic and harsher than harsh. Folks from the UK say “Van Goff.” No idea where that comes from, but then the English (in particular) make a habit of mispronouncing every French word they possibly can, just to annoy les francais. Maybe they have decided to extend this courtesy to the Netherlands, too. Americans pronounce it “Van Go” – much softer and easier to say, but evidently also incorrect!

Regardless of pronunciations, this is the busiest room at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, and the space in front of this one painting is nearly always packed with besieging admirers. What is it they are thinking about as they look at it? The brush strokes? The texture? The colors? The brilliance of the artist? Perhaps they are thinking of their own joy at actually seeing this masterpiece in person. Then again, maybe it’s not so much about the art or the painter, but merely about the bragging rights of having “been there and done that.” I think most people are drawn to Vincent’s tragic life story, perhaps more than to his art. I always think of the sad, lovely ballad by singer-songwriter Don MacLean when I think of VVG. Wisely, Don just stuck to “Vincent.”

“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 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

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

Don MacLean, Vincent, 1971

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