February 10, 2010  |  Artists, Viewpoints
Portrait in Seven Shades: Van Gogh

The tragically unrequited love, the driving need to be accepted as a serious artist, the longing for success that never quite came (he sold only one painting during his lifetime)—most people are just as familiar with the story of Vincent van Gogh‘s life as they are with his art. Full of thick strokes and rich colors, van Gogh’s paintings express his passion and pathos. His many self-portraits show him to be sad or dispirited. Aware of his struggles, we are drawn into his paintings. The reality he captures is one we want to experience.

“Van Gogh” is the fifth movement of the Portrait in Seven Shades suite that I composed using seven selected painters from MoMA’s amazing collection as inspiration. In this piece I use words to tell van Gogh’s story—my first foray into writing lyrics. Out of all the movements this comes closest to being in a style of American song form, a very safe and familiar form, and through this familiarity it’s almost as if I can create a safe place and nurturing environment for Vincent. There are a lot of references in “Van Gogh” to his paintings, in particular The Starry Night, perhaps his most famous work. In The Starry Night we see a view of the night sky from his sanitarium; he painted it by memory the next morning.

I chose to feature Wynton Marsalis on the melody and solo. I knew he would express with his trumpet the same broad strokes and textures that van Gogh found in his paintings. On vocals, Vincent Gardner tells the story as I pictured van Gogh talking to his good friend Paul Gauguin.


This piece captured all the sentiment that is van Gogh’s life but plays it out in a much more romantic way. Wynton’s horn brings out the subtle beauty of van Gogh’s thick brushstrokes giving them a softer appeal. Gardner’s lyrical interpretation draws you further into the whirling beauty of van Gogh’s Starry Night.

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