15 Facts About Vincent van Gogh's Sunflowers

LEX VAN LIESHOUT/AFP/Getty Images
LEX VAN LIESHOUT/AFP/Getty Images

Nineteenth century Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh had a unique perspective on the world, which he presented through breathtaking Post-Impressionistic paintings. But before he caught the world's imagination, before he created The Starry Night, this mercurial man dedicated himself to the surreal and beautiful wonder of Sunflowers.

1. SUNFLOWERS ARE NOT ONE PAINTING, BUT TWO SERIES OF PAINTINGS.

The first set of four is known as The Paris Sunflowers. These were created when the artist lived with his brother Theo in the City of Light, ahead of moving to Arles in the south of France in 1888. That August, van Gogh began the Arles Sunflowers while renting four rooms in a yellow house.

2. IT'S EASY TO DISTINGUISH THE TWO SETS FROM ONE ANOTHER.

The Arles Sunflowers are posed in vases, poking skyward; the Paris series presents the flowers lying on the ground.

3. THE ARLES SUNFLOWERS WERE PAINTED FOR PAUL GAUGUIN.

Vincent van Gogh's 'Sunflowers'
By Vincent Van Gogh - The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Paul Gauguin, the French Post-Impressionist painter, was an admired friend and colleague of van Gogh's. Through letters, the pair planned for Gauguin to visit Arles in October of 1888 so that the two artists might work alongside each other. Ahead of Gauguin's arrival, van Gogh decided he would decorate the Yellow House with paintings to please his guest. The first wave was of sunflowers.

4. VAN GOGH LOVED WORKING ON SUNFLOWERS.

Though he battled with mental illness and self-doubt, the painter found joy in creating the Arles Sunflowers. In August of 1888, he wrote to his beloved 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."

5. VAN GOGH INITIALLY PLANNED TO MAKE 12 SUNFLOWER PAINTINGS IN ARLES.

In the same letter to Theo, Vincent wrote, "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 quickly."

Van Gogh finished four that month. Then in January of 1889, he revisited the subject with three paintings known as The Repetitions, because they were copies of his third and fourth versions from his August series.

6. TODAY THERE ARE ONLY FIVE KNOWN ARLES SUNFLOWERS.

Between his initial version and their repetitions, by 1889, there were seven Arles Sunflowers. However, over the years, two have been lost to the public. The first of the initial versions was sold into a private collection. The second was destroyed by fire during World War II. So when museums refer to the Arles Sunflowers, they are referencing the third and fourth of the initial version, and the three Repetitions.

7. GAUGUIN WAS IMPRESSED.

Gauguin declared Sunflowers "a perfect example of the style that was completely Vincent." After two months in Arles, Gauguin asked if he could trade one of his pieces for one of van Gogh's Sunflowers.

8. THE ARLES SUNFLOWERS ARE PART OF A WIDER COLLECTION OF WORKS.

Instead of creating a dozen panels of sunflowers, van Gogh followed his Sunflowers with a string of portraits, including Joseph Roulin (The Postmaster), Patience Escalier (The Old Peasant), and Paul-Eugène Milliet (The Lover). Next came a series that came to be known as Toiles de 30-Décoration. All painted on size 30 canvases, this wave featured a variety of topics, including gardens, bedrooms, portraits, and a depiction of the yellow house itself. This collection came to be known as "Décoration for the Yellow House." Most were made before van Gogh's breakdown that winter, during which he infamously mutilated his ear.

9. VAN GOGH INTENDED HIS ARLES SUNFLOWERS TO BE PART OF A TRIPTYCH.

Vincent van Gogh's 'Sunflowers'
By Vincent van Gogh - repro from art book, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In January of 1889, van Gogh wrote to Theo, explaining how he felt the third and fourth Sunflowers from Arles would brilliantly frame his first repetition of Berceuse, a portrait of a woman in a rocking chair. He wrote, "I picture to myself these same canvases between those of the sunflowers, which would thus form torches or candelabra beside them." He provided a sketch of what he had in mind, and would later execute it in his display at the 1890 art show Les XX.

10. SUNFLOWERS USED GROUNDBREAKING COLOR.

    Art critics still marvel at the detail and depth van Gogh drew out of layering shades of yellow. But BBC notes that such colors were new to painters, reporting, "These series of paintings were made possible by the innovations in manufactured pigments in the 19th century. Without the vibrancy of the new colors, such as chrome yellow, van Gogh may never have achieved the intensity of Sunflowers." Alternately, without an artist like van Gogh, these colors may have never had their potential fulfilled.

    11. VAN GOGH NEVER SOLD A SINGLE ONE OF HIS SUNFLOWERS.

      In his lifetime, van Gogh only sold one self-portrait, and The Red Vineyard at Arles, notably part of Décoration for the Yellow House. Following his death on July 29, 1890, all of his Sunflowers went to Theo.

      12. SUNFLOWERS ARE AMONG VAN GOGH'S MOST POPULAR PAINTINGS.


      By Vincent van Gogh - repro from art book, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

      Sunflowers are displayed all over the globe. Paintings from the Paris series can be found in Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum, New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bern's Museum of Fine Arts, and the Netherlands's Kröller-Müller Museum. One of the initial Arles series can be found in London's National Gallery, the other in Munich's Neue Pinakothek. The Repetitions are on display in the Van Gogh Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Tokyo's Sompo Japan Museum of Art.

      13. MUSEUMS COLLABORATED TO BRING SUNFLOWERS TOGETHER.

      The advantage to van Gogh's Sunflowers being scattered is that they are accessible to people across the world. The downside, however, is that few people will ever get to see them as a collection, as intended. But in 2014, two of these paintings were wrangled for a special exhibit in London. The Van Gogh Museum lent their Repetitions piece to the National Gallery for the first reunion of the pieces in nearly 60 years.

      14. THERE ARE MAJOR OBSTACLES TO EXHIBITING SUNFLOWERS TOGETHER.

      "There are two reasons," van Gogh expert Martin Bailey explained to The Telegraph of the reasons why it's difficult to show Sunflowers as a series. "First, they are fragile works, and for conservation reasons they either cannot travel at all or are only allowed to in very exceptional circumstances. Secondly, they are probably the most popular paintings in all the galleries that own them, so the owning institutions are very reluctant to allow them to leave."

      15. NEW TECHNOLOGY BROUGHT A FULL COLLECTION OF SUNFLOWERS TO THE MASSES.

      Vincent van Gogh's 'Sunflowers' at the National Gallery in London
      Mary Turner/Getty Images

        In 2017, the National Gallery employed the new streaming technology of Facebook Live to create a “virtual exhibition” that brought together five paintings of the Arles Sunflowers series. The groundbreaking presentation featured expert curators taking turns presenting their Sunflowers to the video-streaming audience, complete with 15-minute lectures. This marked the first time this many Sunflowers were shown together since they left Theo's home on their way to building van Gogh's legacy. And from pioneering colors to cutting-edge exhibitions, van Gogh's Sunflowers came full circle.

        9 Facts About Vincent Van Gogh

        A self-portrait of Vincent Van Gogh is displayed on a screen in Rome in 2016
        A self-portrait of Vincent Van Gogh is displayed on a screen in Rome in 2016
        ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images

        Born on March 30, 1853, in Zundert, Netherlands, Vincent van Gogh came to art relatively late, only deciding on it as a career at the age of 27. Now his post-Impressionist paintings of sunflowers, night skies, and the landscapes and people of Provence in southern France are among the most recognizable artworks in the world. But mental health issues, a lack of fame during his lifetime, and the infamous moment his ear was cut with a razor have made his story a compelling, complex narrative. Here are nine facts about the celebrated Dutch artist.

        1. Vincent van Gogh was an art dealer before he was an artist.

        Before becoming an artist, Vincent van Gogh joined the art firm Goupil & Cie in The Hague in 1869 at the age of 16. In 1873, he was sent to London to work for the firm. His brother, Theo, worked for the same company in Brussels. While Theo thrived, Vincent struggled as an art dealer, and cared little for the commercial side of art. In 1876, he was fired. He then did some teaching and tried for a career as a preacher, like his father, but his first attempt at missionary work in a Belgian mining village was a failure. After six months, he'd made so little headway the evangelical committee that had sponsored him decided that he was unfit for the work.

        1. Vincent van Gogh was largely self-taught.

        Vincent van Gogh at the age of 19
        Vincent van Gogh at the age of 19
        J.M.W. de Louw, Wikimedia // Public Domain

        Although van Gogh had short stints at art academies in Brussels and Antwerp, it wasn't a good fit—the teachers didn't like his style, and he didn't appreciate their traditional teaching methods. Over three months in Paris in 1886, artist Fernand Cormon mentored van Gogh in sketching studies of models. These brief experiences were the bulk of his art education. Instead, he focused on training himself: Early in his career, he created hundreds of drawings to play with ideas and develop his skills. He also spent hours studying drawing manuals and copying prints, including those of work by Delacroix and Rembrandt, to master his sketching technique.

        1. Most of van Gogh’s work was made in a single decade.

        Van Gogh’s artistic career only spanned from 1880 to 1890. In that one decade, he created more than 2000 drawings, paintings, watercolors, and sketches. In the last two months of his life, while he was settled in Auvers-sur-Oise, he was prolific, making about a painting a day.

        1. Van Gogh only signed his first name.

        Despite his late start as an artist, van Gogh was confident in his brand, and signed his paintings just “Vincent.” He may have chosen this shortened name because he knew his surname was difficult to pronounce (most people still don't give it the full "vun KHOKH" Dutch pronunciation). Or, he may have been inspired by his Dutch hero Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, who similarly only signed his first name.

        1. Japan inspired van Gogh as much as Provence did.

        While living in Paris from 1886 to 1888, van Gogh acquired a collection of Japanese ukiyo-e prints, which influenced the aesthetics of his paintings. (A Japanese woodblock print of geishas appears in his 1889 Self Portrait With Bandaged Ear.) When he arrived in Provence and witnessed the weathered trees and soft light of Arles, he wrote to his brother Theo: "My dear brother, you know, I feel I’m in Japan." The colors in the paintings he created in Provence, particularly the blues, purples, and yellows, reflected the dominant palette of Japanese prints of the time. He also adopted the skewed perspectives—such as in the 1888 The Bedroom—and the diagonal, streaking rain that he observed in Japanese prints. Although he never made it to Japan, his idealized vision of the country infused his early depictions of the south of France.

        1. Van Gogh's paintings today don't always look the way he intended.

        Two of Van Gogh's 'Sunflowers' paintings hanging side by side on display in London
        Two of Van Gogh's 'Sunflowers' paintings hanging side by side on display in London
        Mary Turner/Getty Images

        Synthetic paint tubes (a new invention dating to 1841) were increasingly available to artists in the 19th century, and van Gogh mixed their vivid hues with natural pigments. The lead-based chrome yellow gave his sunflowers their lively glow, while red made from cochineal insects were used as a warm texture in several paintings. However, his experimentation with novel colors means we sometimes don't see his paintings as he intended. The bright red geranium lake has faded from his wheat fields; a violet on the walls of the 1888 The Bedroom turned to blue as the red in the pigment dissipated.

        1. There’s much debate around the mutilation of van Gogh's ear.

        One of the most well-known incidents in van Gogh's life was when he cut off his own ear on December 23, 1888, in Arles. How much he sliced off, and the circumstances of the mutilation, are still under debate. Some historians have posited that it was after a quarrel with fellow painter Paul Gauguin, as their friendship had rapidly deteriorated despite van Gogh’s hopes that they could form something of an artist community in Arles. Others have theorized that the act was in reaction to news that his beloved brother Theo was going to marry. By some reports it was just the earlobe, yet a sketch by Dr. Félix Rey, the physician who treated him, shows the whole ear being severed. Popular lore is that he presented the mangled flesh to a prostitute, but new research suggests it was a local farmer's daughter working as a maid in a brothel who was the unlucky recipient.

        1. Van Gogh's most famous artwork was painted in an asylum.

        "This morning I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big," Vincent wrote to his brother Theo in June 1889. Although he didn’t include it in The Starry Night which he painted that year, the window he described was iron-barred and looked out from the Saint-Paul de Mausole asylum in southern France. He voluntarily admitted himself into the asylum on May 8, 1889. Created during this productive yet troubled time in van Gogh's life, the nocturnal tableau of curling pigment over a small village (which van Gogh largely imagined, with a church spire akin to those in his home country) is arguably his most famous work. It draws daily crowds in its current home, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

        1. Van Gogh's success was posthumous.

        Vincent Van Gogh's gravestone in Auvers-sur-Oise, a small village north of Paris
        Vincent Van Gogh's gravestone in Auvers-sur-Oise, a small village north of Paris
        PIERRE-FRANCK COLOMBIER/AFP/Getty Images

        Two days after sustaining a self-inflicted gunshot wound, Vincent van Gogh died on July 29, 1890. Thanks to his constant correspondence with his brother Theo, later historians were able to reconstruct his biography, and recognize the essential support that his brother offered to Vincent. He had little commercial or critical success in his lifetime; the lore that he sold one painting while alive isn't completely true, but isn't that far off. (He sold at least two.)

        But after his death, his star rose, helped significantly by his sister-in-law Jo van Gogh-Bonger. After Theo died in 1891, she inherited heaps of Vincent's art, and spent years organizing exhibitions, promoting his work across Western Europe, and getting his pieces in public art collections. In 1905, thanks to her efforts, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam hosted a retrospective. Now Vincent van Gogh exhibitions are blockbusters around the world. In 1990, his Portrait of Dr. Gachet sold for $82.5 million at Christie's, setting a new record for a single painting.

        A Resin-Preserved KFC Drumstick Can Be Yours for $100

        Kentucky for Kentucky
        Kentucky for Kentucky

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        Kentucky for Kentucky, an independent organization that promotes the Bluegrass State, unveiled the jars of "Chick-Infinity" on its website earlier in June. The chicken pieces are authentic Colonel's original recipe drumsticks sourced from a KFC restaurant in Coal Run, Kentucky. While they were at their golden-brown peak, Kentucky artist Coleman Larkin submerged them in 16-ounce Mason jars filled with clear resin "with all the care of a Southern mamaw putting up greasy beans for the winter." 

        KFC drumstick in a jar.
        Kentucky for Kentucky

        The project, part of Larkin's Dixieland Preserves line of Southern-themed resin encapsulations (which also includes the preserved poop of a Kentucky Derby winner), aims to present the iconic Kentucky product in a new way. "Honestly, is there anything better than biting into a warm, crispy KFC drumstick after a day at the lake?" Kentucky for Kentucky writes in a blog post, "we wanted to capture that feeling in a product that didn’t disappear into a pile of bones as soon as it’s opened."

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        [h/t Food & Wine]

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