Vincent van Gogh’s Iconic Sunflowers

1. Van Gogh made two series of sunflower paintings.

The famous Sunflowers is actually the second series of sunflower paintings by the artist. There is an earlier series of four works, made during his years in Paris, that depict flowers lying on the ground. Paul Gaugin saw Van Gogh’s Parisian sunflowers and greatly admired them. He subsequently acquired two of the paintings and hung them above his bed in his apartment.

2. The famous series were used as decoration.

The famous series with sunflowers in a vase were initially painted as decoration for Paul Gaugin’s room in Arles. Van Gogh looked up to Gauguin and decided to paint the series when Theo, his brother, finally persuaded Gauguin to join him in Arles. He did seven paintings in total, three of which are kept in different museums all over the world (the Neue Pinakothek in Munich, the National Gallery in London, and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam). Of the others, one belongs to a private collection and another was lost during World War II. There are also versions in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Sompo Japan Museum of Art in Tokyo.

3. Gauguin made a portrait of Van Gogh working with sunflowers.

In Arles, Gauguin made a portrait of Van Gogh painting one of these iconic still lifes. Through his many self-portraits we are very familiar with Van Gogh’s likeness. However Gauguin’s painting gives us a glimpse of how he saw the famous painter. Van Gogh once wrote about Gauguin’s portrait:

4. Van Gogh experimented with yellow.

Still-lifes with flowers were a pretty common subject for painters at the time. At first, Van Gogh followed a more traditional approach in his still lifes but progressively moved to more extreme color contrasts. Sunflowers is an example of such an experiment, a study of varying hues of yellow and green.

5. They were a symbol of gratitude and happiness.

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.

He also intended to create a triptych in which his portrait of Woman Rocking the Cradle would be framed by two sunflower paintings. He described this idea in a letter to his brother Theo, along with a sketch:

Van Gogh took the humble yellow flowers and turned them into iconic works of art. It is no wonder that when Gaugin saw the paintings in Arles he immediately called them “completely Vincent’’. The Dutch artist will be forever associated with them as a symbol of joy and gratitude for a world he could not understand.

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