Van Gogh Painting Sunflowers, 1888

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903)

  • Oil on Canvas, 73 x 91 cm
  • Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
    (Vincent van Gogh Stichting)

Here, Gauguin depicts his friend painting sunflowers. It is impossible, however, that he actually saw Van Gogh at work on this particular project, since when Gauguin painted this portrait no sunflowers were in bloom. But this was not a problem for Gauguin. Unlike Van Gogh, who nearly always based his work on direct observation, Gauguin relied more on memory and imagination in the creation of his canvases.

More information about "Van Gogh Painting Sunflowers"


Gauguin's early work was influenced by Impressionism, but he soon followed a different course. Influenced by Japanese woodcuts and his colleague Emile Bernard, Gauguin began to flatten space into large planes of boldly outlined color. This new style, which was picked up and explored by the Postimpressionist Nabis, is often known as Cloisonnism after the French cloison, or partition – a reference to the strong lines between each color plane.

Gauguin in Arles

Gauguin painted this portrait in November 1888, during his brief stay in Arles. Van Gogh had repeatedly asked him to come to Provence to help him realize his dream of creating an artists’ colony in Arles – a ‘Studio of the South.’ Almost as soon as Gauguin arrived, however, problems arose, and the friends had many quarrels. On December 23 the situation finally came to a head. Van Gogh threatened Gauguin with a knife, but Gauguin was able to escape. Furious and disconsolate, Van Gogh cut off a small piece of his own ear. He was admitted to the hospital in Arles, where he remained until 7 January. Immediately following this incident, Gauguin left Provence.

Dead tired and tense
Some of the tension between the two artists can be felt in the portrait, painted only a few weeks before their final confrontation. When Vincent first saw it he seems to have remarked that although he recognized it as himself, he felt Gauguin had portrayed him as a madman. However, he later wrote to Theo: 'My face has lit up after all a lot since, but it was indeed me, extremely tired and charged with electricity as I was then.'


The scene is depicted from above, with all its essential components cut off by the edge of the canvas: the painter himself, his palette and easel, and the table with the vase of sunflowers. The center is quite empty. Gauguin often created unusual compositions like this, for example in his Study for ‘Woman in the Hay.’
Gauguin painted his friend’s likeness on burlap, applying the relatively dry paint in a thin layer. When viewed close up, we can clearly see the rough, grainy structure of the surface.

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