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.

        Last Surviving Person of Interest in Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist to Be Released From Prison

        Federal Bureau of Investigation, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain
        Federal Bureau of Investigation, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

        Almost exactly 29 years ago, two men disguised as police officers weaseled their way into Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and started removing prized artworks from the wall. They made off with 13 famous paintings and sculptures, representing a value of more than $500 million. It remains the largest property theft in U.S. history, but no one has ever been charged in connection with the heist.

        Now, as Smithsonian reports, the last living person who may have first-hand knowledge about the heist will be released from prison this Sunday after serving 54 months for an unrelated crime. Robert (Bobby) Gentile, an 82-year-old mobster who was jailed for selling a gun to a known murderer, has been questioned by authorities in the past. In 2010, the wife of the late mobster Robert (Bobby) Guarente told investigators she had seen her husband give several of the artworks in question to Gentile—a good friend of Guarente’s—eight years prior.

        A 2012 raid of Gentile’s home also revealed a list of black market prices for the stolen items. Previous testimony from other mob associates—coupled with the fact that Gentile had failed a polygraph test when he was questioned about the art heist—suggest Gentile might know more about the crime than he has let on. For his part, though, Gentile says he is innocent and knows nothing about the art or the heist.

        The FBI announced in 2013 that it knew who was responsible for the museum heist, but would not reveal their names because they were dead. Still, the whereabouts of the artworks—including prized paintings by Rembrandt, Manet, Vermeer, and Degas—remain unknown. The museum is offering a $10 million reward to anyone who can provide information leading to “the recovery of all 13 works in good condition," according to the museum's website. A separate $100,000 reward will be provided for the return of an eagle finial that was used by Napoleon’s Imperial Guard.

        [h/t Smithsonian]

        9 Colors Named After People

        Alice Roosevelt—for whom Alice Blue is named—in 1902
        Alice Roosevelt—for whom Alice Blue is named—in 1902
        Frances Benjamin Johnston, Library of Congress/Wikimedia // Public Domain

        Throughout history, a variety of famous people have lent their names to shades of brilliant blue, shocking purple, grassy green, muddy brown, and other hues. While many of these figures are artists who were known for using or developing these hues, other color eponyms come from the scientists who invented them or those who loved to wear them. Consider this list the place where the history books meet the artist’s palette.

        1. Alice Blue

        A pale azure blue named for Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, who was known for wearing gowns of the color and thus sparking a trend for it. (She was also known for smoking in public and other forms of mischief-making, leading her father to declare: “I can either run the country or I can attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both.”) Her ice-blue dresses inspired the song "Alice Blue Gown" by Joseph McCarthy and Harry Tierney, which premiered in the 1919 Broadway musical Irene. ("I once had a gown that was almost new / Oh, the daintiest thing, it was sweet Alice Blue / With little forget-me-nots placed here and there / When I had it on, I walked on air.")

        2. Yves Klein Blue

        Visitors look at 'Monochrome Blue, without title' (1960) by French artist Yves Klein
        Visitors look at Monochrome Blue, without title (1960) by French artist Yves Klein
        THOMAS LOHNES/AFP/Getty Images

        The artist Yves Klein was interested in art as transcendence, and he’s perhaps best known for painting monochromes in a brilliant ultramarine meant to suggest the infinity of sea and sky. (As Klein once explained, "Blue has no dimensions, it is beyond dimensions.") In 1960, he registered a formula for the color—known as IKB, or International Klein Blue—with the French government; the formula relied on ultramarine pigment mixed with a synthetic resin that wouldn't dilute the color.

        During his “blue period,” Klein exhibited only blue paintings and objects, releasing a thousand and one blue balloons into the sky in Paris to celebrate one show, and serving gin, Cointreau, and blue-dye cocktails at another. Don’t copy that last idea, mixologists: everyone who drank them peed blue for days.

        3. Titian Red

        Visitors look at a painting by Renaissance master Titian in Rome
        Visitors look at a painting by Renaissance master Titian in Rome
        GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images

        A person with red hair is sometimes said to be a Titian, after the great 16th century Venetian painter who was notably fond of painting redheads. (Examples of such paintings include Bacchus and Ariadne and Noli me Tangere, now in London's National Gallery.) In the 1960s, redheaded Barbie dolls were officially known as “Titians.” More loosely, the term has come to mean any orange-red color, although people seem to love to debate exactly what shades count.

        4. Scheele's Green

        Svenska Familj-Journalen, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

        Arsenic-based green pigments were all the rage in the 19th century, coloring everything from hosiery to hats to children’s toys. The first such pigment on the scene was Scheele’s Green, discovered by Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele in 1775. The vibrant yellow-green hue caught on, especially after it was discovered that arsenic also produced a variety of other greens, from deep emerald to pale peridot. Although Scheele and others knew how toxic these pigments were, that didn't stop the colors from being used for clothing, candles, papers, playing cards, book-bindings, and sometimes even food. In perhaps the most famous example of its use, arsenic green wallpaper graced Napoleon’s last bathroom while he suffered through his exile on St. Helena, and some think the fumes caused by his long baths may have been what killed him.

        5. Isabelline

        José Reynaldo da Fonseca, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.5

        If true, this color's origin story has to be the most off-putting in history. Once used to describe the pale champagne color of certain horse coats and bird feathers, the term Isabella-colored or isabelline is said (by no less than Isaac D'Israeli's 1791 Curiosities of Literature) to come from Isabel of Austria, the devoted daughter of Philip II of Spain.

        Supposedly, when Spain laid siege to the city of Ostend in 1601, Isabella vowed not to change her undergarments until the city was taken. She expected a speedy victory, but much to her dismay (and presumably that of everyone around her), the fighting continued for three years before Spain won.

        The Oxford English Dictionary dismisses this origin story, noting that Isabella as a color is first noted in 1600, a year before the siege began. But linguist Michael Quinion notes that accounts in French, German, Spanish and Italian (where isabelline has a similar color meaning) refer to the earlier Queen Isabella of Castile (1451-1504) and the siege of Granada—which means the story might just be true, even if it's about a different Isabella and a different set of 7-month-old dirty underwear.

        6. Fuchsia

        Heinrich Füllmaurer, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

        Here's a more pleasant etymology: The vivid red-purple of fuchsia, the color, comes from fuchsia, the flower, which is in turn named for 16th-century German botanist Leonhart Fuchs. (His last name, by the way, comes from the German word for "fox.") And if you think fuchsia and magenta are the same color, you're closer than you might think: Magenta was originally an aniline dye named fuchsine, named after the fuchsia flower. The name was changed in 1859, the year it was patented, in honor of the French victory at the Battle of Magenta. That apparently helped the dye become a stunning success.

        7. Vandyke Brown

        Anthony van Dyck, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

        This deep, warm, transparent brown was made with a high concentration of organic matter (basically: actual dirt), and was popular with the Old Masters. It was named for the innovative Flemish painter Anthony van Dyck, who often used the color in his paintings, and who also lent his name to an early photographic printing process—which also produced a brown color, but did not actually involve dirt.

        8. Perkin's Mauve

        Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

        Like so many scientific discoveries, the invention of synthetic dyes happened by accident. In 1856, chemistry student William Henry Perkin, then only 18, was trying to find a new way to make quinine (a popular treatment for malaria, and the ingredient that still gives tonic water its slightly bitter taste). The experiment didn't quite work as planned, but Perkin noticed some purple sludge left over in his flask after rinsing it with alcohol, and realized its potential.

        His instincts were good: After Perkin patented his creation and began mass-producing it, the color swept England, becoming so popular that the magazine Punch condemned an outbreak of “the mauve measles.” The color was originally called aniline purple by Perkin, as well as Perkin's purple or Perkin’s violet. The mauve part of “Perkin’s mauve” came a few years later thanks to the French, who named it after their word for the mallow flower.

        9. Hooker's Green

        Thomas Herbert Maguire, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

        The warm, grassy "Hooker's Green" is named for botanical illustrator William Hooker (1779–1832), who created a special pigment just to convey the exact green of leaves.

        Bonus: Mummy Brown

        A close-up of an Egyptian mummy head
        A close-up of an Egyptian mummy head
        iStock.com/izanbar

        OK, it’s not a color named after one person, but a color named after many people—many dead people. First made in the 16th and 17th centuries, but a special favorite of the 19th century painters, this rich brown pigment was created by mixing both human and feline mummy crumbles with white pitch and myrrh. (Although we tend to think of them as protected antiquities today, people in centuries past often considered mummies just another natural resource.)

        In part because of its curious components, the pigment wasn’t the most stable in the world, and it fell out of favor once its origin story became better known. According to one biography, the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones gave his tube of Mummy Brown a funeral in his garden when he discovered where it came from. The pigment was sold into the 20th century, although if you see the name “mummy brown” used today, rest assured it contains no actual corpses. Probably.

        A version of this list first ran in 2016.

        SECTIONS

        arrow
        LIVE SMARTER