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.

        Lost Sketches From The Little Prince Have Been Discovered in Switzerland

        Oleksandr Samolyk, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
        Oleksandr Samolyk, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

        French aviator and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince, published in 1943, has long been regarded as one of the most compelling books of the 20th century. Drawing upon Saint-Exupéry's own experiences in aviation, the book tells the tale of a pilot who crashes in the Sahara and befriends a little boy who claims to have come from outer space. The book is accompanied by a number of illustrations by Saint-Exupéry. Now, Smithsonian reports that some of the original preparatory sketches have surfaced.

        According to France24.com, the sketches—of the titular Little Prince chatting with a fox, a boa constrictor devouring an elephant, and a character called the Tippler—were purchased at auction in 1986 by an art collector named Bruno Stefanini, who tucked them away in a folder. When Stefanini passed away in December 2018, the artwork—drawn on airmail paper—was uncovered by workers at his non-profit Foundation for Art, Culture, and History in Winterthur, Switzerland.

        Aviator and 'The Little Prince' author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is photographed inside of an airplane cockpit in 1935
        Aviator and The Little Prince author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in 1935.
        Hulton Archive/Getty Images

        The organization intends to share its findings with the Morgan Library and Museum in New York, which currently houses the original book manuscript (including drafts of the book's most famous phrase, "What is essential is invisible to the eye") and 35 other sketches.

        The Stefanini collection also includes a particularly personal piece of material. One of the sketches includes a love letter made out to Saint-Exupéry's wife while the pilot was in New York in 1942 following Germany’s invasion of France. It was there he wrote The Little Prince, which was published the following year. In 1944, Saint-Exupéry was shot down by a German pilot over the Mediterranean.

        [h/t Smithsonian]

        The Definition of Museum Could Be Changing

        The Louvre Museum in Paris, France.
        The Louvre Museum in Paris, France.
        roman_slavik/iStock via Getty Images

        If you’ve always casually defined museum as “a place to see art or historical objects,” you’re not necessarily wrong. But the International Council of Museums (ICOM) has a more specific, official guideline that defines a museum as “a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates, and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study, and enjoyment.”

        ICOM’s 40,000 members have been adhering to this definition for almost 50 years to represent more than 20,000 museums around the world. Now, The Art Newspaper reports, some members want to change it.

        On July 22, the organization’s executive board convened in Paris and composed a new definition that Danish curator Jette Sandahl believes better suits the demands of “cultural democracy.” By this updated description, a museum must “acknowledg[e] and addres[s] the conflicts and challenges of the present,” “work in active partnership with and for diverse communities to collect, preserve, research, interpret, exhibit, and enhance understandings of the world,” and “contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality, and planetary wellbeing.”

        The proposal immediately elicited harsh reactions from a number of other members of the museum community, who felt the text was too ideological and vague. François Mairesse, a professor at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle and the chair of the International Committee of Museology, even resigned from the revisory commission—led by Sandahl—earlier this summer when he realized the new definition wasn’t, by his standards, really a definition. “This is not a definition but a statement of fashionable values, much too complicated and partly aberrant,” he told The Art Newspaper. “It would be disastrous to impose only one type of museum.”

        The current plan is for ICOM members to vote on the definition at the general assembly on September 7 in Kyoto, Japan, but 24 national branches and five museums’ international committees have petitioned to postpone the vote—they’d like some time to create their own definition for museum and present it as a counter-proposal.

        [h/t The Art Newspaper]

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