Picture of the month: Van Gogh's Sunflowers

With its vibrant chrome yellow flowers blazing out against the pale yellow background, Van Gogh’s Sunflowers was, at the time, a startlingly modern take on the Dutch tradition of still-life painting.

Vincent van Gogh, 'Sunflowers', 1888

It is one of seven sunflower paintings Van Gogh completed between August 1888 and January 1889, two of which were intended to decorate a bedroom in his rented home and studio (the Yellow House, in Arles) for artist Paul Gauguin. Van Gogh dreamed of establishing an artist community in the south of France and was looking forward to Gauguin’s stay.

He drew on an established theme for the work – the buds, the wilting petals, and seeds all suggesting the cycle of life – but the way he painted it was innovative. Thick impasto brushstrokes convey the varied textures of the flowers, the vase, and the table. He used quick, short dabs of paint for the bristly seed heads and hairy green buds; while for the petals, leaves, and stems he used longer strokes; the highlight on the vase he suggests with blobs of white paint.

Van Gogh worked on the canvases indoors with his characteristic enthusiasm while the Provençal mistral raged outside. But the artist community was not to be. Gauguin was the only artist to spend time with Van Gogh in Arles; their artistic differences ultimately leading to Gauguin’s departure and Van Gogh’s mental breakdown.

Today ‘Sunflowers’ is one of our most popular paintings; its bright yellow tones reflecting Van Gogh’s happiness at Gauguin’s then imminent arrival.

Vincent van Gogh
Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers