Surprised by joy

Thursday, October 11, 2007
A couple weeks ago at our small group meeting the people were engrossed in some deep conversation or another, and my eyes were captured by a picture on the far wall. It was Vincent Van Gogh's "Starry Night over the Rhone."

As I said it captured my attention and at a distance I watched it unfold before me. It became like a small movie and the town lights reflected in the water almost began to shimmer. The clear cool night sky with the Big Dipper shining brightly, the two older people walking home after a full night, and the soft breeze blowing all served to capture my spirit unlike anything "art like" has ever done before.

It was a strange moment when a painting captured my heart. I can't even explain it properly, but it feels like joy. Deep inside there, even now when I see it my heart feels full, and good and alive.

Now when we go to the small group gathering I always sit where I can see it, and I do stare at it catching new things I hadn't seen before. It's like we have this secret relationship, this picture and I. It makes me smile whenever I see it, and I still don't completely know why.

Van Gogh was quite proud of the piece which he had painted in Arles in 1888 that depicted stars reflecting in the Rhone River. And I have always felt a bit of an affinity for him.

Vincent was a preachers boy who was a quiet child with little if any attention spent on art or artistic interests.

He got work in the Hague gallery which transferred him around a good deal. He was on his way to becoming an art dealer when he suddenly lost interest in the work.

He redirected his life towards ministry preparation, to evangelize the poor. But eventually his frustration and inability to progress in school saw him leave to go and care for miners and their families. He ended up in Borinage working at the evangelization of the destitute miners. He found he was able to identify with them, their lifestyles and families quite well, but it was very frustrating work for him.

He was with them a while, then left the ministry to "work to leave something of importance behind for mankind." His brother Theo pressured him to become an artist, and he did.

His mind was sick, and he struggled so deeply with mental illness not understood in those days.

Vincent viewed his life as horribly wasted, and himself an impossible failure. On July 27, 1890 Van Gogh attempted suicide by shooting himself in the chest. He survived, but died two days later from the wound.

His brother's widow collected the majority of Vincent's work. She took the collection to Holland and dedicated herself to getting the now deceased Vincent the recognition he deserved. She published his work and Vincent became famous nearly instantly. His reputation has been growing ever since.

During his lifetime, he sold only one painting.

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.

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've told you, Vincent:
This world was never meant
For one as beautiful as you.

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 McLean


  1. Dr. Wilfred Niels ArnoldOctober 12, 2007 at 2:31 AM

    I would be happy to send you a review of Van Gogh's illness in PDF format.

    Arnold, WN (2004) “The illness of Vincent van Gogh.” Journal of the History of the Neurosciences 13: 22-43.

  2. That would be great, I'd appreciate it.

    randallfriesen AT gmail DOT com


  3. Wow, our living room must be a port-hole for you to good places -- Iona, the Rhone...

    It's interesting where that painting takes you. On our honeymoon we went to Ottawa specifically to go to the National Gallery (I'd been there on a band trip in gr 12 and had to go back). There was a Monet and Van Gogh exhibit on at the time. It was wonderful just to stand there and look at these masterpieces.

    I tend to be more of a Rembrandt girl, myself. That's a Rembrandt in our dining room (The Philosopher Reading). I love to look at the people in his paintings. But I do love the Van Goghs (posters-turned-paintings b/c they're framed) we have.

  4. Steve MenshenfriendOctober 12, 2007 at 5:14 AM

    The Rhone River ... the best wine in the world (according to me) comes from there. ... hmmm.


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