What is it about Vincent Van Gogh that continues to inspire? Painters still mimic techniques he perfected. Scores of filmmakers, songwriters, and poets have crafted their own works of art with Van Gogh as their subject. What is it about this artist that so captures our interest? A definitive answer to that question may not be possible, but I can at least speak to what inspired me to write this song.

Van Gogh seemed to see the world in ways that the rest of us do not. In the words of William Blake, “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear as it is: infinite.” For all of his faults, Van Gogh’s “doors of perception” appear to have been remarkably clean. He stood before starry nights and wheat fields and there glimpsed the infinite. In fact, he preferred ordinary scenes and settings to those more traditionally accepted for locating the divine. He once admitted to his brother, Theo, “I prefer to see diggers digging and have found glory outside of Paradise.” Even more to the point, he confessed, “I prefer to paint people’s eyes to cathedrals.”

Van Gogh seems to have perceived the infinite in places the rest of us miss it. And like a curious child peaking behind a closed curtain, Van Gogh excitedly whispers back to us with each brush stroke to tell of the beautiful truth he has glimpsed behind the veil: our generous God is at work everywhere, if only we’d have eyes to see and ears to hear.

That is what inspires me.

A perfect example of Van Gogh’s genius is his early work, The Potato Eaters (1885). In this painting, a family of farmers sit around a table sharing a meal of potatoes sown and harvested by their own hands. Those hands, bent and calloused from the toil, now hold the fruit of their labor. Each family members’ eyes look to another as their hardened hands are positioned to serve. Above the table, a single oil lamp hangs. This lamp, you might presume, would be the only light source in an otherwise dark room. However, light also appears to be emanating from the meal itself. A young girl in the foreground, positioned between the viewer and the table, hides the light’s source. But as steam rises toward the lamp above, light too rises from the table – as can be seen in the play of shadows on the hard lines of the farmers’ faces. This meal is made of more than potatoes. It is, in a word, eucharistic. Van Gogh saw that God is present in the love and labor of a poor family gathered round their dining table every bit as much as he is at the altar of Europe’s grandest cathedrals.

Such ability to perceive, however, should come with a warning label.

Van Gogh not only saw God’s light where the rest of us do not, he also dealt with untold darkness. In what many believe to be one of Van Gogh’s last paintings, he stood before a wheat field – a common subject for Van Gogh – and painted not only the yellows of the wheat and the blues of the sky, but also the black wings of crows flying overhead. While some of the black patterns are clearly birds, others mix with the blue sky and take an indiscernible shape – not clouds, not birds, only darkness. The haunting brush strokes unraveling in Van Gogh’s sky reveal the haunting darkness that would ultimately unravel his mind. Van Gogh soon after took his own life.

I wrote this song imagining myself standing next to Vincent as he painted this ominous sky. It is, in some real way, my attempt to save his life. “It’s okay, Vincent. They’re just birds.” But even in an imaginary conversation, saving him proved not so simple.

Van Gogh is a tragic character in every sense of the word. His gift – his ability to peer behind the veil of reality and glimpse the infinite – was more than one life could bear. But I thank God he tried.

In another letter to Theo, he wrote, “I have a duty to leave this world a souvenir of gratitude through painting and drawing.”  Van Gogh left us more than a souvenir. He left us a whisper, a rumor of the good news that there is more to this world than what we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell. God, in his generosity, is at work everywhere. Vincent perceived that reality, and he continues to inspire others to believe it too.



Vincent, they’re just birds,
the dark patterns in the air
They’re not visions of your pain or hurt
Vincent, they’re just birds

But if I tell you not to see
what isn’t there, am I just stealing
the very blessing you’ve been blessed with
and used to bless us all in turn

Cause you could make stars dance
the way preachers never could
Oh, and you see olive branches made from
more than leaves and wood

So if I tell you not to see
what isn’t there, am I just stealing
the very blessing you’ve been blessed with
and used to bless us all in turn

Cause they were never just potato farmers
round the dining table
And it was never just the sun
that circled round the harvest field

Between each pair of atoms
there moves a living energy
Oh, and you knew those dark patterns
they flew with more than just their wings

Oh, but Vincent, they’re just birds
they’re just birds
At least that’s all I see


Words & Music: Bill Wolf
Produced: Thomas Smith
Violins: Thomas Smith