Sunflowers, 1889

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)

  • Oil on Canvas, 95 x 73 cm
  • Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)
  • F 458

‘I am working with the enthusiasm of a man from Marseilles eating bouillabaisse, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to you because I am busy painting huge sunflowers.’ It was August, the sunflowers were blooming, and Van Gogh desperately wanted to capture them in a series of 12 pictures. Because the flowers wilted so quickly, he worked on his canvases every day.
He painted the series to decorate the room where Paul Gauguin would stay when he arrived in Arles. He chose this subject because his friend had previously admired his paintings of sunflowers run to seed.
In the end, Vincent executed four sunflower still lifes; however, he felt only two were good enough to hang in Gauguin’s bedroom. He was later to paint three copies of them, one of which is the version in the Van Gogh Museum.

More information about "Sunflowers"

Video: Vincent van Gogh's Sunflowers

Comfort and Gratitude

In December 1888, several months after finishing the first version of the Sunflowers, Van Gogh painted a portrait of Madame Roulin. He called the work La Berceuse: ‘lullaby’ or ‘woman rocking an infant.’ Augustine Roulin, who holds the cord to her baby’s cradle, is also intended as an emblem of motherhood in general. The painter made four other versions of this work in early 1889. The subject had probably taken on a new meaning for him during his illness, evoking memories of his own mother and how she had once cared for him.

Later, Van Gogh conceived the idea of hanging La Berceuse and the two Sunflowers as a triptych. He wanted to create a decorative whole which, when placed, for example, in the cabin of a ship, would offer comfort to sailors far from home. This explains why the artist later wrote that the Sunflowers were a symbol of ‘gratitude,’ a meaning it acquired only when seen in combination with La Berceuse.

Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers, 1888, National Gallery Londen, La Berceuse, 1888, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, Sunflowers, 1889, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, (Vincent van Gogh Foundation) Van Gogh at work, May 2013

Above all, lots of yellow

In one of the two paintings that hung in Gauguin’s room, the sunflowers are depicted against a contrasting blue background. The other, like the Van Gogh Museum’s version, has a yellow background, making it almost monochrome. It is mainly executed in shades of yellow and ocher, with some green for the leaves and the stems, and a patch of red or blue. Earlier in his career Van Gogh had created a similar harmony in yellow in his Still life with quinces and lemons.

Recognition

Gauguin portrayed Van Gogh painting sunflowers. He seems to have thought of this as a moment typical of his Dutch colleague. Gauguin loved Van Gogh’s still lifes with sunflowers, and wanted to havea copy for himself
Van Gogh, too, was proud of his masterpieces. He sent the two best versions to an exhibition in Brussels, where they were well received. In a letter, he compared himself to other flower painters, writing: ‘You know, Jeannin has the peony, Quost the hollyhock, but the sunflowers are a little bit mine.’

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