Van Gogh’s Sunflowers

by Lisa Dickinson Michaux, Tastemaker in Residence

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It is late summer in Minnesota and a big bouquet of yellow sunflowers brightens my kitchen. Of course I think of Vincent Van Gogh, an artist who came to be identified with this tall and sunny bloom.

Vincent moved from Paris to Arles in the spring of 1888 looking for inspiration and hoping to create an artistic colony in the South of France. Later that summer he began to decorate his yellow house for the arrival of the artist Paul Gauguin. Van Gogh planned six canvases with sunflowers, but by the end of the growing season had completed four that he hung on the walls of Gauguin’s room. Van Gogh started with the idea of the yellow flowers against blueish backgrounds, which he thought was reminiscent of the effect of stained-glass windows. In his fourth painting, he placed the yellow flowers in a yellow vase against a yellow background—it was an ambitious study done primarily in one color that he called “light on light.”

The giant fields of sunflowers that exist today in Provence were not there when Van Gogh arrived. Rather, he first found his subject bordering vegetable gardens in Paris. Despite, or maybe even because of, the fact that the sunflower was considered inelegant and unfashionable, Van Gogh was one of the first to depict entire bouquets of sunflowers rather than just using one or two to add a little yellow to a floral still life. He also chose wilted and spent flowers and saw beauty in the withered blooms well past their prime. Perhaps he saw potential in the seeds that would become next year’s flowers in the field.

When Gauguin asked to take the yellow on yellow version of the sunflowers back to Paris, Van Gogh knew it was exceptional. Not wanting to lose an important work, Van Gogh used the painting as a model and created two replicas. There are three intense yellow sunflower paintings—the one at the National Gallery in London was the first canvas and was intended for Gauguin, the others in Tokyo and at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam were painted after the original by Vincent. The Amsterdam painting is the center of the exhibition “Van Gogh and the Sunflowers” on view until September 1—if you hurry, you can still see this exhibition before the end of summer.

Vincent considered his sunflower paintings among his most successful works, and with their thick brushstrokes and intense colors, they are quintessentially Vincent. But they were also meant as an expression of gratitude for Gauguin’s visit. Van Gogh’s goal was always to create art that offered solace to troubled hearts, and I think we can all see this as we look at that tender way he painted the withered, yet still vibrant sunflowers.