Van Gogh’s Sunflowers: History and Analysis of the First Sunflower Series (August, 1888)

Painted in roughly one week at the end of August 1888, the original series of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers were intended as inspirational and decorative pieces for his “yellow house” in Arles, France. In preparation for painter Paul Gauguin’s arrival later in the year, Van Gogh wanted his house and his paintings to reflect the extra-luminous, mysterious color palette he found in the surrounding countryside of Arles and the Mediterranean Sea:

“The Mediterranean has the colors of mackerel, changeable I mean. You don’t always know if it is green or violet, you can’t even say it’s blue, because the next moment the changing light has taken on a tinge of pink or gray… Everywhere now there is old gold, bronze, copper, one might say, and that with the green azure of the sky, blanched with heat: a delicious colour, extraordinarily harmonious, with the blended tones of Delacroix.” [Excerpt from letters to Theo]

Upon his arrival in Arles in February of 1888, Van Gogh was immediately inspired and surprised by the intensity of color to be found in the south of France. As opposed to the northern European sky and landscape with its clouds and mist, the blazing sun and luminous sky of the south seem to have banished all hesitation from Van Gogh’s paintings. Daring color contrasts and spiraling rhythms all inspired by the environs of Arles began to flow endlessly, as if in a state of sustained ecstasy. Completing nearly a canvas a day and writing hundreds of letters, 1888 saw Van Gogh paint at a furious pace, achieving an unhinged speed and quality of output practically unmatched in the history of art.

Sunflowers as a Gift of Gratitude

As most of Van Gogh paintings had been executed with no one in particular in mind, his planned sunflower series was a slight departure in that it was intended as a gift and expression of friendship. Whereas many of his paintings seem to draw you in and away toward the horizon, pulling you in to his vision and world, the Van Gogh sunflowers seem to reach out and communicate with you; it’s as if you can touch them. These are paintings that were clearly intended to charm and comfort, and they are possibly all the more stunning because the intended viewer of these paintings was another artist Van Gogh admired so much: he knew that anything less than magnificence would not impress Gauguin.

Painting the Sunflowers

When Gauguin finally confirmed he would be heading to Arles (after delaying for quite some time) Van Gogh’s gloom and apprehension was completely dispelled. With an almost gustatory enthusiasm, he threw himself into the sunflower project. It had expanded in his mind from six to twelve canvases that would constitute a ‘symphony in blue and yellow’ – affective, like music, by virtue of their color and “simple technique,” comprehensible to anyone with eyes in their head. Racing to complete his canvases before the flowers wilted, Vincent worked feverishly from sunrise to sunset, realizing four of the envisioned twelve. He first produced, in quick succession, two canvases featuring less than a half dozen flowers, moving next to a composition of “twelve sunflowers and buds” (there are in fact more) arranged in a yellow earthenware case against a light blue-green background. Having completed this exploration of light against light, he painted a contrasting pendant of the same size and featuring the same yellow vase, but ‘all in yellow’ the yellow sunflowers set before a yellow background.

By ‘simple technique’ Vincent meant a manner that was free from the fussy stippling of pointillism. And indeed the procedure in these canvases represents his final disavowal of Neo-Impressionism. He began in customary fashion, establishing the composition with a drawn contour sketch, reinforced it with painted lines, and blocked in the background and primary forms with thin paint layers. Then he picked up speed, sometimes loading the brush with color and in other places using little paint. He did not hesitate to use unmixed color directly from the tube, and often combined pigments incompletely on his palette, so that veins of separate color run through individual strokes.

Vincent devised different systems of brushwork for each element in the picture: the background is a basketweave pattern; the table, a series of loose horizontal strokes; the petals in single flowers and leaves are made up of single marks or small, parallel ones; the centers of these flowers are painted with circular strokes of pure red lake, dotted with a ring yellow impasto; the petals of full double flowers are short, thick strokes radiating out from more thinly laid in centers. Having held the general shape of most flowers in reserve when applying an initial background layer, he added petal tips over the final ground. Applying new pigment onto still-wet underlying or adjacent area with a controlled and confident touch, Vincent probably devoted only a single session to each canvas, later reinforcing a few contours and adding his signature.

The Van Gogh sunflower series, first contemplated in a spirit of loneliness, now celebrated Vincent’s “hope to live with Gauguin in a studio of our own” while intimating a growing sense of mission. Gauguin, for his part, expressed readiness to participate in his friend’s plan, but he was by no means feeling the same blend of personal and ideological longing.

Utilizing late 19th century innovations in paint manufacturing, throughout 1888 Van Gogh had been using bold, unmixed colors against each other to stunning effect. Chrome yellow, citron yellow, zinc yellow, cadmium, straw yellow, cobalt blue, french ultamarine, viridean and emerald green all feature strongly in the Van Gogh Sunflowers and his later work in general. Using the strong literal, visual and vibrational contrasts between colors, Vincent Van Gogh paintings tap into the full potential of intense color paired with an undulating and spiraling sense of rhythm.

An analysis of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers reveals the convergence of many superficial and ulterior themes within the artist’s life: his affinity for the color yellow, his insistence on speed, his focused intensity when it came to certain objects and people, and his obvious affinity for the sunflower as his ‘power-flower,’ so to speak:

“As you know peonies are Jeannin’s, hollyhocks are Quost’s, and sunflowers, well, sunflowers are mine.”

Furthermore, one of the only paintings Paul Gauguin finished while visiting Van Gogh in Arles was his portrait Vincent Painting Sunflowers (see Gauguin section below) which manages to capture Van Gogh’s calm intensity when it came to depicting his subjects and landscapes.

In Love With Yellow

Concerning Vincent Van Gogh’s affinity for the color yellow, it is hard not to draw this conclusion from a man who paints possibly the ‘yellowist’ depiction of sunflowers in the history of humankind while renting a yellow house and painting hundreds of depictions of cornfields, wheatfields, and of course, the wildly golden, biblically tinged The Sower from earlier in the same year. In a letter to his sister Wilemina, Van Gogh described the sunflower still lifes as ‘paintings all in yellow.’ Perhaps foreshadowing Picasso’s Blue Period in which the artist drastically reduced his color pallet to stunning results, Van Gogh sunflowers are indeed a wild and vivacious ‘symphony in yellow’ combining a dozen or more shades and tones of yellow into a singular fusion.

Painting ‘In-the-Moment’

When it came to speed, Van Gogh not only painted at a furious pace, but actually needed to paint as quick as nature itself in order to capture the wind, the sun, the trees and of course, the sunflowers:

“I propose to paint a series of pictures for the studio in the hope of living there together with Gauguin. Nothing but a lot of big sunflowers… If I carry out my plan there will be a dozen pictures. The whole thing a symphony in blue and yellow. I start working every day at dawn because the flowers wilt very quickly, and it has to be painted in one go.”

This method of painting ‘in one go’ not only increased the output of his paintings during the final years of his life, but added to the focus, intensity and singular expression many of his paintings exude. Waves, rivers, spirals and eddies of color seem to flow spontaneously in-the-moment and in harmony with the rhythms of a much bigger and grander universe lurking just beneath the most commonplace of objects.

Gauguin’s ‘Painter of Sunflowers’

With The Painter of Sunflowers, Gauguin represented the arrangement of sunflowers that Vincent paints in the manner of Van Gogh’s own August Sunflower series. The two full flower heads (termed doubles) are positioned similarly to those of the yellow-on-yellow version, and the top blossom in Gauguin’s canvas corresponds to the disheveled one at the upper-left in Vincent’s. Gauguin followed Vincent heavily reinforcing the rayflowers’ contours and also in using dark red layers in the center disks. This method in Gauguin’s canvas could allude to his critique of Vincent as merely transcribing the Sunflowers, and even applying paint to the sunflowers themselves.

The Painter of Sunflowers illustrates Gauguin’s critique of Vincent’s working habits and their limitations, along the lines of the larger indictment he would later append to one of his representations of his time with Vincent. Retrospectively Gauguin would contend that while nineteenth-century artists had mastered drawing as a language of direct communication, none- not even Delacroix – had truly understood the expressive potential of color.

The overall portrayal of Vincent, however, is fictional: Van Gogh could not have been painting real sunflowers in December, for they were not in season. By depicting the still life in a Vincent-like-manner, Gauguin hinted that neither he nor Vincent directly observed the motif but rather saw it already transformed by the latter’s imagination. In other words, they worked with reference to earlier Sunflower canvases, not to actual sunflowers.

Endowing Vincent with a trancelike, absorbed expression, Gauguin performed something more complex than caricature or ridicule. He and Vincent evidently pondered the creative potential of the state between waking and dreaming. Gauguin here blurs the line between Van Gogh ‘seeing god’ in this trance-like state, and being caught in a kind of accidental, beginner’s stupor, although many would constitute these as synonymous states. Vincent would later comment on the painting and it’s resemblance to his likeness “It is certainly I, but it’s I gone mad.”

The Lost Sunflower Painting (Second Version)

Painted within the same timeframe as the other three sunflower paintings mentioned above, this Van Gogh painting was deemed the ‘Six Sunflowers’ and was intended to be set inside an orange frame. Once owned by Koyata Yamamoto, a wealthy Japanese art collector, the painting was destroyed along with the owner’s house on August 6, 1945 – the same day the United States bombed Hiroshima.

Although the painting was not a victim of the nuclear bomb, it was hanging above a couch in the man’s coastal home in Osaka when the village was destroyed in a US bombing run the same day. Almost seven decades later, in 2013 British art historian and curator Martin Bailey came across a color photograph of the painting hiding in a collection of Cezanne prints while researching a book on Van Gogh sunflowers.

Overall, Van Gogh’s Sunflower Paintings continue to fascinate the casual viewer and art historians alike. Even 125 years after the completion of these four paintings, they continue to surprise and enchant us.