Of Vincent Van Gogh’s many series of paintings and periods in his career, his most famous is arguable that of the Sunflowers. Paintings of sunflowers have become synonymous with Van Gogh and his work in the latter part of his life. Many artists have tried to duplicate his technique over the years with originals and copies of the fabled flowers adorning galleries, offices and homes around the world.
The Sunflower series began in the years Van Gogh spent seeking his place in the artistic world in France. The first few paintings were created with the sole purpose of decorating Paul Gauguin’s home. Despite the volume of work in the series, most of the Sunflowers paintings were composed between 1888 and 1889 during Van Gogh’s time spent in Arles. The earliest works were created in Paris in 1887, where Van Gogh painted sunflowers with single flowers and clips rather than in vases.
Sunflowers – 1887
What makes the sunflower images so unique in contrast to any of his other paintings or those of other painters is the incredible attention to the aesthetics of the flower rather than the physical details. Van Gogh’s own use of yellow in the latter part of his life is most intensively accentuated in these images. However, through Van Gogh’s still lifes of Sunflowers, he also displayed the images of death through browns and then combined and contrasted the two, pitting vibrant life against dry and brittle death. Through the simple painting of flowers in still life, Van Gogh was able to describe and explore all the intricate aspects of both life and death and their relation to each other.
It is the use of balance and control of the observer’s eye, so deftly utilized in many of his paintings, that makes the Sunflower series so unique. By creating a careful balance not only in tonal range but in composition and in theme with life and death, yet drawing the viewers eyes to numerous locations, Van Gogh is able to entrance his admirers with such vibrant paintings of simple flowers.
Sunflowers – 1888
Many of the pictures in Van Gogh’s Sunflowers series are almost identical with the exception of a few small details. The layout and positioning of the flowers is often identical or very similar to any of a number of other paintings. If one were to combine two of them, they might find only superficial differences.
For example, common differences included the varying petal composition in each painting. Some paintings contained larger, bulkier petals than others, while others shaped intricate “V” patterns. The eye of each flower would occasionally differ in color as well. While one might display the yellow tints of life, another might contain the traditional black of a dying sunflower. The same technique was used for leaves. Occasionally, the only difference between one painting and the next might be that one displayed the petals as a vibrant yellow and the next with a tinge of wilting brown.
Ironically, the composition of Van Go’s sunflowers, so dependent on his use of color, might not have been possible only a century earlier. Because of the development of new paints and new colors in those paints, Van Gogh was able to utilize pigments such as Chrome Yellow that few other painters had ever had access to.