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Behind the Art: Why are Vincent van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ so famous and what meaning do they hold?

Vincent van Gogh was not the first artist to paint still-life flowers and he certainly did not invent sunflowers. He did things so differently that it shocked the art world. Why did he choose to paint sunflowers and why are his sunflower series so iconic?

Vincent wanted to be known as the painter of sunflowers and it is this passion that led him to make five different versions of sunflowers in a vase. (Photo: Van Gogh Museum)

Vincent van Gogh, the infamous Dutch painter was nothing short of a genius. His paintings are still talked about hundreds of years later and art lovers are always left in awe when they gaze upon any of his masterpieces. But it isn’t just his unique techniques that made him so adored, it was his humanity and nature that touches the hearts of many. Vincent wanted to be known as the painter of sunflowers and it is this passion that led him to make five different versions of sunflowers in a vase. Van Gogh started his series of Sunflowers on Monday 20 August 1888 and finished on Friday. These five artworks are now found at museums all around the world, from Tokyo to Amsterdam. The fourth version of Sunflowers called ‘Still Life: Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers’ which now hangs in the National Gallery of London, United Kingdom is one of the most talked about in the sunflower series. It was bought by Japanese insurance magnate Yasuo Goto for $39.85 million in 1987. Vincent van Gogh once hoped to sell this for a mere $125 when he was alive. Why did he choose to paint sunflowers and why are his sunflower series so iconic?

The iconic sunflowers

Van Gogh was not the first artist to paint still-life flowers and he certainly did not invent sunflowers. He did things so differently that it shocked the art world. He chose to paint sunflowers with three shades of yellow and nothing else. This way he showed the world that it was possible to paint something with numerous variations of a single colour, without any loss of articulateness. His fellow painters criticised his sunflowers and thought they were ‘coarse and unrefined’. But this is what Van Gogh was aiming for, he enjoyed painting flowers that had gone to seed. He knew his sunflowers were unique and special so much so that when he died, his friends brought sunflowers with them to his funeral. Sunflowers became synonymous with Vincent, just as he had hoped. The sunflower series show sunflowers in all stages of life, from full bloom to withering. The paintings were considered visionary for their use of the yellow spectrum, partly because newly invented pigments made new colours possible. The vibrant yellow oil paints in Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” were first made available early in the 19th century. He was among the first artists to fully embrace them.

Friendship, gratitude and hope

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The fourth version of Sunflowers called ‘Still Life: Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers’ which now hangs in the National Gallery of London, United Kingdom is one of the most talked about in the sunflower series. (Photo: Van Gogh Museum)

If one studies the life of Van Gogh, one will see a tortured human being hidden behind every brush stroke. Most of his masterpieces were made when he was going through psychosis in the mental asylum but sunflowers signified something else entirely for him. They communicated gratitude, friendship and hope that one day he will get better. He hung the first two paintings in his friend’s room, the painter Paul Gauguin, who came to live with him for a while in the Yellow House. Gauguin was impressed by the sunflowers, which he thought were ‘completely Vincent’. Van Gogh had already painted a new version during his friend’s stay and Gauguin later asked for one as a gift, which Vincent was reluctant to give him. He later produced two loose copies, however, one of which is now in the Van Gogh Museum, in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Yellow for Van Gogh was an emblem of happiness – in Dutch literature, the sunflower was a sign of devotion and loyalty. In their various stages of decay, these flowers also remind people of the cycle of life and death.

Surprising facts about Van Gogh’s sunflowers

Although one can appreciate the beauty of the sunflowers that Van Gogh so lovingly painted for his friend, they do not entirely know the history behind the art. Several facts about his artwork continue to entice art lovers as when Van Gogh moved to Arles, he entered into a prolific period in which he infused his works with yellow hues. Several theories attempt to explain this. One asserts he overindulged in absinthe while another suggests he took too much digitalis. Either substance could have tinted what he saw with yellow. Another surprising fact about the painting is: that painting nearly led to bloodshed. In 1890 in Brussels, a Belgian painter bristled at having his paintings displayed in the same exhibition as “Sunflowers,” saying Vincent was a charlatan. Vincent’s friend Henri Toulouse-Lautrec heard the disparaging remark and challenged the Belgian to a duel, which never took place. Another fact of the painting highlights how unstable the frame of mind of Van Gogh was before he cut off his ear: In Arles, Vincent rented quarters in what he called the Yellow House and furnished a room to accommodate Gauguin. He planned to decorate the room with sunflower paintings. Later, the Yellow House would be the scene of Vincent’s self-mutilation. From being a loving and appreciating friend to fighting with Gauguin and harming himself, Van Gogh had a wide spectrum of emotions.

It is true when they say an artwork represents the heart and soul of the artist. Van Gogh was so delighted with the sunflowers he painted in that one week that he celebrated the completion of his paintings with a shopping spree. Known as a very gloomy and mentally disturbed person, Van Gogh was truly overjoyed by the sunflowers as they gave him hope for a better life. Although notorious for his shabby clothes, he bought “a black velvet jacket of quite good quality for 20 francs” and a large yellow straw hat. Both items appear to be hanging behind his bed in the painting he made of his bedroom two months later. The vibrant and joyful sunflowers have left an imprint on the art world of a tormented genius who sought happiness just like any other human.

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Next up in Behind the Art: What makes Rembrandt’s The Night Watch so iconic? Why was it controversial during its time and did it really lead to Rembrandt’s downfall? 

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First published on: 16-10-2022 at 10:15 IST
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