Ear-chopping episode aside, sunflowers are probably one of the most iconic images associated with Vincent van Gogh. Beloved for their sunny, cheerful appearance and bold shapes, it has been estimated that around 5 million people see the artist’s paintings of these flowers every year.
Van Gogh had previously painted pictures of dying sunflower heads during his time in Paris, in 1886-1888. Increasingly concerned with symbolism, he returned to colourful flowers when preparing for his fellow artist, Paul Gauguin, to come and stay with him in Arles. Excited for his friend’s visit, Van Gogh wanted to offer him a warm welcome and seized upon paintings of sunflowers as the ideal decorative scheme. Thus emerged a series of paintings of the flowers, arranged in earthenware vases and painted rapidly, as they steadily wilted.
In August 1888, Van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo, “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.” These sun-aping flowers have traditionally been associated with happiness, and are a symbol of loyalty in Dutch literature. Little surprise, then, that as a lover of colour and its emotional force, Van Gogh would choose these yellow beacons to welcome Gauguin to his house. Just four months later, their time together would end in terrible arguments and the aforementioned ear-removal. For that summer, however, Van Gogh was optimistic and leaves these bold paintings to us as a reminder of his fleeting hopefulness.
The National Gallery in London is currently playing host to the Sunflowers owned by the Van Gogh Museum, in Amsterdam, which they are displaying alongside their own version. Head along to the National Gallery before the 27 April, 2014 for a look at these much-loved works for yourself. If you’d like to read more about Vincent van Gogh, grab a copy of Victoria Charles’ in-depth look at the great master, or Van Gogh in his own words, in our book from the Mega Square collection.