Love the Sunflowers

Between August 1887 and January 1889 Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh produced eleven pictures of sunflowers. Four were completed in Paris and seven in Arles, located in the South of France.

The specific decorative purposes and iconographic connotations Van Gogh associated with these striking and oddly statuesque blooms remains a popular topic for scholarly debate. That being said, we do know that for him, sunflowers were emblematic of the French midi.

His dedication to the subject of sunflowers was partly derived from a desire to breath life into what he considered to be his lackluster Dutch palette. Painting flowers of any kind, he believed, allowed him to enliven and free his palette of dull monotonous grays.

Here the ailing flowers, gathered together in an earthenware jug, are built up with a thick and brilliant impasto to the point that their tough texture is not only visible but also palpable. This thickness of paint lends to the image a realistic quality that is ultimately countered by the shockingly bright yellow background that renders the image more decorative than representational.

It is in this way that Van Gogh’s depiction of sunflowers astutely puts on view the artist’s dueling fascinations with the reality of his subjects as well as his desire to create boldly decorative juxtapositions of colors.

Also of interest with respect to his sunflowers was the involvement of Paul Gauguin in their production and collection. This particular work was intended to decorate Gauguin’s bedroom.

Between October and December of 1888 Van Gogh and Gauguin worked together in Arles. While their friendship ended rather tragically, the two did indeed positively influence one and other’s oeuvre during the heyday of their stint as neighbors and painting-partners.

Gauguin in fact owned many of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers until he was forced to relinquish the paintings in order to finance his South Seas voyage. Gauguin did, however, continue to stand by the proclamation of their significance for contemporary art and in 1888 immortalized his friend in the act of painting sunflowers in a work now installed at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Emily Ally is a modern art historian and writer for Art Revived (, the leading provider of high quality reproduction oil paintings at an affordable price. Find more of her work on the Art Revived blog:

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