The twelve sunflowers – ARTKEMON

The twelve sunflowers

Vincent Van Gogh made a series of seven canvases painted between 1888 and 1889. It was named “ The Sunflowers or Arles”, and the year before, during 1887 he had made another series named “The Sunflowers of Paris”. These canvases are among the most popular works of the post-impressionist painter.

These are still life paintings, and in this genre, floral paintings stood out the most. In Holland, floral paintings had a common place in artistic tradition, but not many included sunflowers, as they where seen as rugged and unsophisticated. Nonetheless, Vincent liked their wild appearance.


The beginning

During november and december of 1887, Vincent exhibited his four preliminary studies of "The Sunflowers" in the Restaurant Du Chalet, only to find general indifference (if not derision) until Gauguin entered the dining room. He noticed those strange still lifes, not because of the painting itself but because of the flowers: Gauguin is half Peruvian and there, the sunflower is an emblematic flower.

Part of the menu of Du Chalet

As he approached the canvases, his professional and free eye distinguished a refined technique and an original style. "Who is the madman who paints sunflowers?”

This is how Gauguin and Vincent met. The Dutchman was fascinated by Gauguin, a courageous and revolutionary artist, whom he referred to his style as "high poetry". That Gauguin appreciated his work was a shock, and his admiration for him turned to devotion, giving him two of those four sunflowers.

Those four canvases were preliminary studies of the later still lifes, without the vase that he would later incorporate, with cut and wilted flowers. We can already guess his style, his thick and disorderly brushstrokes, wet, giving relief to the petals, with almost pointillist touches for the details and unique colors with innovative yellow spectrums and unthinkable backgrounds.

Why sunflowers?

Moving to Paris in 1886, to his brother Theo's apartment, Vincent discovered the Impressionists and their new color palette. The pigment industry had been transformed during the 19th century to achieve shades of greater purity and intensity than previous painters could only dream of, and that novelty in the hands of the geniuses of Impressionism transformed painting.

The chrome yellow, powerful and vivid, would remain forever associated with his sunflowers and landscapes, and not only with his work but also with his temperament. With it on his palette and on wet canvas, he achieved unrepeatable tonalities.

After immersing himself in Impressionist work, Vincent found its subject matter myopic: although in a new way, they represented the world as it was. He wanted to go further and capture reality with a symbolic dimension and for that, there was nothing better than still lifes of sunflowers: For Van Gogh, a subject as simple as two sunflowers was loaded with symbolism.

On the one hand, in the Dutch religious tradition, they were a symbol of devotion, following the light as the soul can follow that of Christ ("I am the light of the world, he who follows me will not walk in darkness"). On the other hand, Vincent "felt" the colors, it is the "synesthesia", like associating a taste to a piece of music, and yellow represented his inner world.

The Arles House

Photo of the Yellow House in Arles, 1920s, destroyed in a bombing in 1944.

As is well known, Van Gogh moved to Arles in search of the light of Provence and invited Gauguin. It was not only about breaking his terrible loneliness by sharing a studio, in his mind, there was another purpose: he wanted to create a brotherhood of painters with common artistic goals; he bought twelve chairs and saved for Gauguin the role of leader of the new school.

He was enthusiastic about this idea, he painted frantically, and he wanted to impress Gauguin when he arrived.

“Now that I hope to live with Gauguin in a studio of our own, I want to make decorations for the studio. Nothing but big flowers. Next door to your shop, in the restaurant, you know there is a lovely decoration of flowers; I always remember the big sunflowers in the window there.

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 soon, and the thing is to do the whole in one rush.” (letter to Theo)

During this brief period (summer of 1888) he painted some of his best canvases: "The Room at Arles", "The Yellow House", the most famous portraits of the letter carrier Joseph Roulin - the only person in Arles with whom he had a relationship; of the thirty portraits he painted there, twenty-three were of the letter carrier and his family - and in August 1888 the other four versions of the sunflowers in a series that we dare to qualify as psychological self-portraits: His spirit is in every brushstroke and evolves like his own life.

Gauguin had no intention of going to Arles, he wanted to see the world and not settle in a small village lost in the southern French countryside. And then, Theo made a disastrous mistake: to alleviate his brother's loneliness and knowing that Gauguin was broke, he "forced" him to go to Arles by offering him money in exchange.

At first, things worked out, but the character of both was strong and incompatible and even artistically they had different concepts. Gauguin reproached Van Gogh for always using a model, even to paint "some damned sunflowers". Winter came and with it, many hours of claustrophobic confinement of two free geniuses. The disaster was inevitable and ended with the most famous self-mutilation in the History of Art.

Vase with twelve sunflowers

In this version of Vase with Twelve Sunflowers, Van Gogh delivers a novel palette, enriched with different tonalities. Between yellow and pale blue, earth colors, ochre and vibrant orange stand out. The background, like the previous painting, is turquoise, which allows the yellow of the flowers to stand out.

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