Sunflowers is the title of two series of still life paintings by Vincent van Gogh. They are among his most famous paintings.
The Sunflower paintings were meant to symbolize happiness. The yellow flowers were a metaphor for loyalty and devotion in Dutch literature. Moreover, Van Gogh considered them symbols of gratitude.
The first series, executed in Paris in 1887, depicts the flowers lying on the ground, while the second set, made a year later in Arles, shows a bouquet of sunflowers in a vase.
The famous Sunflowers is actually the second series of sunflower paintings by the artist.
Vincent painted a total of five large canvases with sunflowers in a vase, with three shades of yellow ‘and nothing else’. In this way, he demonstrated that it was possible to create an image with numerous variations of a single colour, without any loss of eloquence.
In the artist’s mind both sets were linked by the name of his friend Paul Gauguin, who acquired two of the Paris versions. About eight months later van Gogh hoped to welcome and to impress Gauguin again with Sunflowers, now part of the painted Décoration for the Yellow House that he prepared for the guestroom of his home in Arles, where Gauguin was supposed to stay. After Gauguin’s departure, van Gogh imagined the two major versions as wings of the Berceuse Triptych, and finally he included
them in his Les XX in Bruxelles exhibit.
It was painted during a rare period of excited optimism, while Van Gogh awaited the arrival of the painter Paul Gauguin. The lonely and passionate Vincent had moved to Arles, in the south of France, where he dreamed of setting up a community of artists with Gauguin as its mentor. The work is full of light, energy and bright colours.
Van Gogh recognised at once that he had created something important and relished the fact that his sunflowers were so distinctive that they functioned almost like an artist’s signature. As he told Theo in January 1889, while other artists were known for painting particular flowers such as peonies and hollyhocks, “the sunflower is mine”. “Van Gogh realised early on that sunflowers were a uniquely resonant motif which he could make his own,” explains Christopher Riopelle, curator of post-1800 paintings at the National Gallery.
This, in part, accounts for the popularity of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers today: they are a kind of visual shorthand for the artist, whose dramatic and difficult life, culminating in his death from a self-inflicted bullet wound in 1890, continues to fascinate the public.
For Van Gogh, the sunflower is the product of its time. The plant represents the different stages of life; although it shines brightly when the sun is at its zenith, it is no less inspiring when it silently disintegrates. At the time, the Impressionists’ work on light and color had a great influence on the painter. He, too, had the sudden urge to infuse contrasting shades into his oils. Tone on tone, yellow on blue, green on yellow; Van Gogh experimented with color. The most sovereign of them all? Yellow, of course.
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.
Sunflowers is tied up in the saga of Van Gogh’s severed 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.
Van Gogh took the humble yellow flowers and turned them into iconic works of art.
On March 30, 1987, Japanese insurance magnate Yasuo Goto paid the equivalent of US$39,921,750 for van Gogh’s Still Life: Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers at auction at Christie’s London, at the time a record-setting amount for a work of art. The price was over three times the previous record of about $12 million paid for Andrea Mantegna’s Adoration of the Magi in 1985. The record was broken a few months later with the purchase of another Van Gogh, Irises, by Alan Bond for $53.9 million at Sotheby’s, New York on November 11, 1987.
While it is uncertain whether Yasuo Goto bought the painting himself or on behalf of his company, the Yasuda Fire and Marine Insurance Company of Japan, the painting currently resides at Seiji Togo Yasuda Memorial Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo. After the purchase, a controversy arose whether this is a genuine van Gogh or an Émile Schuffenecker forgery.