Sunflowers, 1888 or 1889
Quick. If you had to think of a flower associated with artist Vincent van Gogh, what would it be? Most likely you answered sunflowers.
Gathered in a simple earthenware pot, Van Gogh arranged a dozen sunflowers. Seen up close and from slightly below, the flowers burst forth in all directions. In French, the flower’s name is tournesol, meaning to turn towards the sun, an apt metaphor for the artist’s journey from Paris to the South of France, where he would work in the heat and light of the Mediterranean sun. Sunflowers held deep meaning for Van Gogh, symbolizing gratitude and loyalty, and while others saw these flowers as rustic, unkempt, and unrefined, especially when they had gone to seed, Vincent celebrated these qualities. Perhaps he saw a bit of himself in them. Just as certain 19th-century painters were identified with their treatments of specific flowers: peonies, poppies, or chrysanthemums, etc., Vincent hoped to be the artist associated with this unclaimed floral variety, and in the end, he was. When he died, friends brought sunflowers to his funeral, and posterity, not to mention the art market, now recognizes Van Gogh’s vibrant sunflower still lifes to be among the most important and treasured works of art in the world.
Van Gogh’s sunflower pictures were experiments in vigorous brushwork and color. Yellow was the painter’s favorite color, and here, against a turquoise background, he offers a spectrum of hues ranging from cadmium to ocher, with notes of red and green. Each flower seems to have its own spirit, its own temperament, as if it has something to tell us.