Some of Vincent van Gogh's most famous works are his Sunflower series. He painted a total of twelve 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 positioning of the actual sunflowers usually remains the same in the 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 Arles. Then goes on to say that he intends to decorate the whole studio with nothing but sunflowers. He went on to write further, to his brother Theo, on the same day,
1. Van Gogh never painted a single artwork entitled "Sunflowers." Instead, he did several renditions of the large yellow blossoms in two separate series of sunflowers, one during a stay with his brother in
Paris in 1887 and another during his tenancy in Arles from 1888 to 1889.
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 National Gallery of London's collection, 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. William Blake in the late 1700s, Claude Monet in 1881 and Allen Ginsberg in 1955 are some of the other well-known artists and poets who evoked the sunflower image.