I have a terrible need of -- dare I say the word? -- religion.
Then I go out at night to paint the stars -- Vincent van Gogh, Arles, 1888
When I was growing up and my ma managed the local ice rink, I spent countless hours twirling, swirling and spinning around on skates. How I loved the free feeling of flying as I circled the rink in the inky darkness.
Northern lights, planets, stars and constellations were my companions. Although I was curious, I wasn't particularly interested in scientific information about my comrades in the sky. I simply adored them. As the years passed my rendezvous with the rink was less frequent. My love of the nighttime sky, however, stayed with me. Songs, poetry and paintings depicting images of celestial beauty captured a more intellectual part of my personality.
When Don McLean's song "Vincent," more commonly known as "Starry, Starry Night," played on the radio I sang along and pondered the words. They haunted me. I wondered not only about the vision it created in my mind, but the verbiage that touched my soul with sadness. What was the song about? It seemed so complex and yet so simple in its ability to intrigue.
Life moved on but the song stayed with me. I'm not sure when I figured out the song was about Vincent van Gogh, the Dutch painter who lived in the latter half of the 1800s. I was familiar with his name and his painting titled "Sunflowers." I discovered more of his paintings. When I saw "Starry Night" I knew instinctively it had inspired McLean's song.
Painted in 1889, the year before van Gogh ended his life, the oil is described as follows: "Van Gogh's night sky is a field of roiling energy. Below the exploding stars, the village is a place of quiet order. Connecting earth and sky is the flame-like cypress, a tree traditionally associated with graveyards and mourning. But death was not ominous for van Gogh. "Looking at the stars always makes me dream," he said. "Why, I ask myself, shouldn't the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France? Just as we take the train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star."
The artist wrote of his experience to his brother Theo: "This morning I saw the country from my window a long time before sunrise, with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big."
This morning star, or Venus, may be the large white star just left of center in The Starry Night. The hamlet, on the other hand, is invented, and the church spire evokes van Gogh's native land, the Netherlands. The painting, like its daytime companion, The Olive Trees, is rooted in imagination and memory. Leaving behind the Impressionist doctrine of truth to nature in favor of restless feeling and intense color, as in this highly charged picture, van Gogh made his work a touchstone for all subsequent Expressionist painting.
Among his other paintings of stars, "Starlight Over the Rhone" is my favorite. "Cafe Terrace at Night" and "Road with Cypress and Star" are also beautiful depictions of star skyscapes of van Gogh's.
When I was in days of carefree courtship, my love affair with the night sky continued. However, life in the metro minimized and often obscured its splendor. Then, when I left the city for the northern woods, I experienced a profound reawakening with the sky of my childhood. There was, and is, nary a night when I don't marvel at the extraordinary celestial exhibit that fills my heart and soul with breathtaking beauty.
Tonight, when I look at the stars sprinkled on their obsidian blanket, I will sing, "I'm in heaven, I'm in heaven, I'm in heaven, in heaven, in heaven."
And what is still more gratifying is that Mariah will sing the song with me.
Van Gogh loved nature, the night sky and his work. In a letter to Theo, he wrote, "I want to get to the point where people say of my work: that man feels deeply."
While we chose different artistic paths, I hope some day people will say of my work -- "that woman feels deeply."
For a virtual tour of van Gogh's paintings, visit the "Masterpieces from the Van Gogh Museum" at the National Gallery of Art web site (www.nga.gov/exhibitions/gogh/html/realspace/room1-room0.htm). This selection of 72 paintings surveys Van Gogh's entire career, from the rural scenes he painted in Holland in the early 1880s to the sun-drenched wheat fields from his years in the south of France, to the last, more subdued landscapes of Auvers-sur-Oise painted shortly before his death in 1890.
Andrea Lea Lambrecht, naturalist and outdoors writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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