In this post, I take a closer look at Vincent van Gogh's Sunflowers series which he painted in Paris and Arles. The series highlights van Gogh's progression in color and style. It also provides some interesting links between van Gogh and another famous artist, Paul Gauguin.
Key Facts and Ideas
Below are some of the key facts and ideas about the series:
- The series is comprised of two sets of paintings: the Paris paintings created around 1887 and the Arles paintings created around 1889. Both sets are shown later in this post.
- In my opinion, the most interesting thing about the Sunflowers series is the way it links van Gogh and Gauguin. Van Gogh had ideas of owning a studio with Gauguin, decorated with "nothing but large sunflowers". With this in mind, he started painting the series whilst he was living with his brother Theo in Paris. Below is a great extract from one of his letters to Theo:
"I’m painting with the gusto of a Marseillais eating bouillabaisse, which won’t surprise you when it’s a question of painting large Sunflowers.I have 3 canvases on the go, 1) 3 large flowers in a green vase, light background (no. 15 canvas), 2) 3 flowers, one flower that’s gone to seed and lost its petals and a bud on a royal blue background (no. 25 canvas), 3) twelve flowers and buds in a yellow vase (no. 30 canvas). So the last one is light on light, and will be the best, I hope. I’ll probably not stop there. 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." Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, August 1888
- Gauguin was eventually convinced to stay with van Gogh in Arles in the "Yellow House" (depicted below). Theo helped convince Gauguin by providing him with funding. Van Gogh decorated Gauguin's room with two paintings from the Paris set.
- Below is a painting by Gauguin which features van Gogh painting his sunflowers:
- Van Gogh had a fit of insanity in 1888, famously cutting off a piece of his ear. He also "pursued Gauguin with a knife and threatened him intensely", according to the Van Gogh Gallery. Gauguin later departed Arles and tried to claim another painting from the Sunflowers series in return for some studies he left behind. Van Gogh was unpleased with this:
"I am definitely keeping my sunflowers in question. He has two of them already, let that hold him. And if he is not satisfied with the exchange he has made with me, he can take back his little Martinique canvas, and his self-portrait sent me from Brittany, at the same time giving me back both my portrait and the two sunflower canvases which he has taken to Paris. So if he ever broaches this subject again, I've told you just how matters stand." Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, 17 January 1889
- Van Gogh mentioned on several occasions in his letters to Theo about a triptych featuring two sunflowers paintings and his Berceuse portrait, with Berceuse in the middle and the sunflowers being "the yellow wings" on the sides. Below is an extract from one of van Gogh's letters explaining his idea, his sketch of the idea and the Berceuse portrait.
"What you also have to know is that if you arrange them this way, namely “La Berceuse” in the middle and the two canvases of sunflowers to the right and left, it makes a sort of triptych. And then the yellow and orange tones of the head will gain in brilliance by the proximity of the yellow wings." Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh 22 May 1889
- Two paintings from the series (the same two paintings mentioned in the triptych point above) were selected by van Gogh to be exhibited in Les XX, 1890. Les XX was a group of twenty Belgian creatives who held an annual, invite-only exhibition.
- The vivid yellows used throughout the series, like chrome yellow, were first manufactured early in the 19th Century. Van Gogh was one of the first artists to fully utilize these vivid yellow colors.
- In 1987, van Gogh's Still Life: Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers was sold for $39,921,750 USD. Here is a list of the most expensive paintings ever sold.
- A painting from the series was featured in a painting by Isaac Israëls below:
Below are paintings which van Gogh painted in Paris. These paintings feature dramatic sunflowers resting on a surface, whilst the later Arles paintings feature bright sunflowers in a vase.
The painting below features a powerful contrast between the powerful oranges and yellows and the dull blues in the background. Also, notice how van Gogh used directional brushwork to help guide your eyes around the painting, particularly in the blue area.
In the painting below, van Gogh made interesting use of hatching to paint the surface which the flowers are resting on.
Van Gogh experimented with a very dark, green background at the top of the painting. This is in stark contrast to the bright blue and yellow backgrounds in the Arles paintings which follow.
The Arles series consists of four originals and three repetitions. These paintings are brighter and more typical of van Gogh's style we have all come to know. These are also the paintings most people are referring to when they speak of the Sunflower series (the Paris paintings are often overlooked).
Van Gogh made interesting use of vivid yellows and oranges to outline the shapes in the painting below. Combined with the rich blue background, the flowers almost appear to glow.
The third version below is much more restrained, with soft yellows, blues and greens used. Notice the interesting tiling technique which van Gogh used, particularly for the wall and vase. This builds up a strong sense of texture and form in the painting.
In the painting below, van Gogh utilized a full range of yellows to depict the entire life of a sunflower: from bright yellows in full bloom to dull ochres in wilting and death. This painting also demonstrates what is possible with a very limited range of colors.
The three paintings which follow are actually repetitions of earlier versions of the Arles paintings. To me, these repetitions lack the same passion which van Gogh put into creating the originals.
Key Takeaways from the Sunflowers Series
Here are some of the key takeaways from the series which you can apply to your own paintings:
- Painting the same subject over and over again allows you to experiment with different colors, techniques, and styles.
- Outlining can give your paintings a strong stylistic appearance.
- The colors you use determine the overall "feeling" of your painting. For example, van Gogh's paintings which feature a strong contrast between blue and orange (complementary colors) have a powerful and jarring feel. On the other hand, van Gogh's paintings which feature mostly different yellow tones have a more subtle and calming feel.
- Writing can complement your art in many ways (after all, writing is just another form of art). It can help document your thoughts, explore new ideas and communicate your findings. Part of the reason van Gogh is so interesting to write about is because of his many letters to his brother and other artists which provide unique insights into his life and art.
(You might also be interested in my Painting Academy course. It goes into much more detail on the fundamentals of art.)