Sunflowers are the subject of some of Vincent van Gogh’s most well-known paintings. He created his first group of sunflowers while living in Paris in 1887. This series depicts cut sunflowers lying across a tabletop.
He painted a second series of sunflowers, which are some of the more famous of the flowers in vases, in Arles, Southern France, in 1888-89.
“It’s a type of painting that changes its aspect a little, which grows in richness the more you look at it. Besides, you know that [Paul] Gauguin likes them extraordinarily. He said to me about them, among other things: ‘that—that’s . . . the flower,'” write van Gogh in a letter to his brother, Theo, in 1889, “You know that [Georges] Jeannin has the peony, [Ernest] Quost has the hollyhock, but I have the sunflower, in a way.”
A Blossoming Friendship
Sunflowers form a unique connection between van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. It was van Gogh’s dream to start an art colony in Arles, based initially at the place known as The Yellow House.
He finally persuaded Gaugin to join him in Arles after Theo van Gogh agreed to pay for Gaugin’s travel and expenses. Part of van Gogh’s impetus to paint the Arlesian sunflowers came from his desire to decorate and prepare the studio in Arles for Gauguin’s arrival and stay there.
He wrote to Theo in 1888: “I am hard at it, painting with the enthusiasm of a Marseillais eating bouillabaisse, which won’t surprise you when you know that what I’m at is the painting of some sunflowers. If I carry out this idea, there will be a dozen panels. So the whole thing will be a symphony in blue and yellow. I am working at it every morning from sunrise on, for the flowers fade so quickly.”
He continued in the letter, “In the hope of living in a studio of our own with Gauguin, I’d like to do a decoration for the studio. Nothing but large sunflowers.”
Gauguin and van Gogh did work together at The Yellow House in Arles, but only briefly between October and December of 1888. Van Gogh and Gaugin had a famously tempestuous friendship, which may explain Gaugin’s reluctance to join van Gogh in Arles in the first place.
During his brief stay there, Gauguin did manage to paint a now-famous portrait of van Gogh painting his sunflowers. Shortly thereafter, Gaugin fled Arles after van Gogh’s deteriorating mental condition led him to slice off part of an ear in response to a rejection by his love interest.
Gauguin eventually moved on to Polynesia, but he continued to have a love for European flowers. While living in Tahiti, he wrote his friend, artist George Daniel de Monfreid, asking him to send bulbs and seeds, including “ordinary dahlias, nasturtiums [and] various sunflowers.” He went on to paint four sunflower paintings.
Recently, a receipt for one of Gauguin’s seed orders was found among a group of documents in the Renoir archive. The seeds were purchased from the firm of Vilmorin, founded in 1743 and still in existence today. The famous seed company was also the favorite of both Monet and Caillebotte.
–John and Ann