10 Facts that You Don't Know About 'Sunflowers' by Van Gogh

Sunflowers, 1888 by Vincent Van Gogh
Sunflowers, 1888 by Vincent Van Gogh

Some of Vincent van Gogh's most famous works are his Sunflower series. He painted a total of eleven of these canvases, although the most commonly referred to are the seven he painted while in Arles in 1888 - 1889. The other five he had painted previously while in Paris in 1887.

There are many pieces within this series of paintings (each is clearly identifiable as a Van Gogh work) in which there are only minor differences that separate them. The overall layout of the painting along with the positioning of the actual sunflowers usually remains the same in similar paintings.

As Van Gogh anticipated in 1889, the Sunflowers finally became his and served - combined with self-portraits - as his artistical arms and alter ego up to the present day: no retrospective Van Gogh exhibition since 1901 voluntarily missed to include them, and a wealth of forgeries, as well as record-setting price paid at auction, acknowledges their public success: Perhaps, because Van Gogh's Sunflowers are more than his or him - they may be considered, as Gauguin put it, the flower.

While Vincent himself never actually stated why he liked the sunflowers, in particular, references to them are made in his many letters, which help give us some idea. In a letter to his sister dated 21 August 1888, he talks of his friend Gauguin coming to live with him in his yellow house in Arles. Then goes on to say that he intends to decorate the whole studio with nothing but sunflowers. Though originally made for Gauguin, van Gogh later took the sunflower as his own personal artistic signature, telling his brother Theo in another letter in 1889 that "the sunflower is mine."

10 Facts that You Don't Know About "Sunflowers"

1) Van Gogh painted 11 works in which sunflowers are the primary subject, and more in which they play a role. One was destroyed in a fire in Japan during an Allied bombing of Osaka during World War II.

2) A factor that distinguishes the artist's earlier Paris series is the fact that blossoms are laid casually on a surface in groups of two or four while in the Arles series, they are arranged in a vase in greater profusion.

3) When they first met in Paris in 1887, Van Gogh and Paul Gaugin exchanged paintings. Vincent's contribution was a "Sunflowers" painting from his Paris series.

4) "Sunflowers" is tied up in the saga of Van Gogh's severed ear. In Arles, Vincent rented quarters in what he called the Yellow House, and furnished a room to accommodate Gauguin. He planned to decorate the room with sunflower paintings. Later, the Yellow House would be the scene of Vincent's self-mutilation.

5) During his brief stay at the Yellow House, Gauguin painted Vincent at work in a canvas entitled, The Painter of Sunflowers.

6) "Sunflowers" nearly led to bloodshed. In 1890 in Brussels, a Belgian painter bristled at having his paintings displayed in the same exhibition as "Sunflowers," saying Vincent was a charlatan. Vincent's friend Henri Toulouse-Lautrec heard the disparaging remark and challenged the Belgian to a duel, which never took place.

7) One of the original "Sunflowers" is part of the collection of National Gallery of London, and former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once asked to see Van Gogh's chrysanthemums. Nobody thought to correct her.

8) When Van Gogh moved to Arles, he entered into a prolific period in which he infused his works with yellow hues. Several theories attempt to explain this. One asserts he overindulged in absinthe while another suggests he took too much digitalis. Either substance could have tinted what he saw with yellow.

9) The vibrant yellow oil paints in Van Gogh's "Sunflowers" were first made available early in the 19th century. He was among the first artists to fully embrace them.

10) Van Gogh was not alone in his focus on sunflowers. Claude Monet in 1881, Gustav Klimt in 1907 and Egon Schiele in 1911 are some of the other well-known artists who evoked the sunflower image.