In August, 1888 Vincent van Gogh
began painting a series of works which, as Dr. Jan Hulsker suggests
"perhaps more than any other of his paintings, have made him known
throughout the world. They are often the only works with which
he is identified."1 This series is, of course, the
Van Gogh envisioned his sunflower works as a series and worked diligently on beautiful decoration of flowers there; I still remember the big sunflower in the window. Well, if I carry out this plan there’ll be a dozen or so panels. The whole thing will therefore be a symphony in blue and yellow. I work on it all these mornings, from sunrise. Because the flowers wilt quickly and it’s a matter of doing the whole thing in one go." (666). Unfortunately, Vincent's race against the changing seasons was unsuccessful and he was only able to complete four sunflower works in August, 1888. Without question, the most valuable resource with regards to insights into the development and execution of Van Gogh's works are his letters to his brother, Theo, and others. In his typically detailed and precise manner, Van Gogh describes the origin of the first three works
Without question, the most valuable resource with regards to insights into the development and execution of Van Gogh's works are his letters to his brother, Theo, and others. In his typically detailed and precise manner, Van Gogh describes the origin of the first three works in this series:I have 3 canvases on the go, 1) 3 large flowers in a green vase, light background (no. 15 canvas), [A] 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), [B] 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." [C] (666). A few days later Vincent writes in Letter 668: "I’m now on the fourth painting of sunflowers. This fourth one is a bouquet of 14 flowers and is on a yellow background."[D]
The four works mentioned above are noted as "A" through "D" and further details are shown in this table below:
After Van Gogh's mental breakdown late in December in 1888, he would go on to paint three additional copies (F 455, F 457, F 458) of the original four sunflower works.
Quotes in Letters
- "You know that Jeannin has the peony, Quost has the hollyhock, but I have the sunflower, in a way." (Letter 741)
- "Thinking like this, but very far off, the desire comes over me to remake myself and try to have myself forgiven for the fact that my paintings are, however, almost a cry of anguish while symbolizing gratitude in the rustic sunflower. " (Letter 856)
Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) are an annual plant native to North and South America. The species includes more than thirty varieties including "Orange Sun" and "Taiyo." The large, puffball like specimens seen in Van Gogh's paintings are known as the "Teddy Bear" variety.
A Note on the Species