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.

        When Skeleton Rocking Chairs and ‘Vampire Killing Kits’ Fooled People Into Thinking They Were Rare Historical Artifacts

        A vampire killing kit at Ripley's Believe It or Not! in San Francisco
        A vampire killing kit at Ripley's Believe It or Not! in San Francisco
        Glen Bowman, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

        In 2012, bizarre rocking chairs—usually dark brown, with various kinds of ornate flourishes, always in the shape of a skeleton—began popping up on sites across the internet. Gothic.org and io9 ran stories about them, and Facebook pages like Steampunk Tendencies soon followed. The chairs were sometimes described as modeled on 19th-century Russian examples—and other times described as 19th-century Russian items themselves.

        The grotesque chairs were funny, but got even funnier in 2013 when someone appropriated a photo from an auction house and meme-ified it. They added a blurred effect and magnified the skeleton’s anguished, open-mouthed expression, making it seem as if it were screaming into the void—perhaps upon realizing that it must spend the rest of eternity as a rocking chair in some eccentric collector’s parlor. By early 2014, someone on 4chan had associated the meme with the words “Wake Me Up Inside (Can't Wake Up)” after lyrics from the 2003 song "Bring Me to Life" by rock band Evanescence. Then, in true internet fashion, people started adding their own text.

        By then, another story had attached itself to the chairs. In 2009, the Lawrence Journal-World discussed the macabre furniture item in a column titled "Ghoulish pieces attract collectors," and suggested that the chair had something to do with a Masonic ritual.

        So—aside from the joy of a good meme—what’s the deal? Was this chair used in some secret society's ceremony, or is it just a strange artifact made by some long-forgotten Russian woodworker?

        A Macabre Fantasy

        According to James Jackson, the answer is neither. Jackson—the president and CEO of Jackson’s Auctions in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and a specialist in Russian art—sold the chair that was featured in several of the early news stories.

        He says most of these chairs were probably made in the '90s, but were designed to look older to fool buyers into forking over more money. “These are the type of things that are created in various markets to appeal to the eclectic, exotic tastes of a wannabe fine art consumer,” Jackson tells Mental Floss. “So the person making this chair—and the guy buying it and reselling it—they understand this brain very well.”

        The precise origins of the chairs Jackson's sold are murky. A couple of the chairs were sold to a third-party seller called a consignor, who then resold them to Jackson’s Auctions. Jackson suspects they were probably made somewhere in Europe—probably at a workshop where the primary goal is to “make a buck.” That would explain why no artist or craftsman's name is ever attached to the chairs.

        These “fantasy chairs” were initially thought to be rare, and some sellers may have benefited from the myths and stories surrounding their origin. Over the years, people started to see more and more of these chairs at auction, which contributed to their diminishing value. Jackson said his auction house sold one of the chairs for $2600 in 2008, but in 2012, the price dropped to $1500. At its lowest price point, a skeleton chair sold for $900 in Detroit, according to Jackson's database of different auction houses.

        Artifacts of the Hyperreal

        Jackson says the skeleton chairs remind him of the vampire slayer kits that were popular in the '90s, and continued to be sold throughout the 2000s (they still pop up on eBay and other online auctions from time to time). Wooden trunks—purportedly full of vampire-repelling tools from the 1800s such as wooden stakes, garlic, a crucifix, and sometimes pistols—used to command high prices at auction. Sotheby’s even sold one for $25,000 in 2011.

        “It was BS,” Jackson says of the trunks, explaining that while they may have contained old tools, the pieces were assembled later for commercial purposes and given a phony backstory. “Whenever we see anything weird like that, it’s an automatic red flag. To the consumer, though, they want it to be some rare and unusual thing—and that’s not true.”

        Jackson said one obvious sign that the slaying kits were inauthentic was that "they don’t show up in any literature prior to the 1990s, [and] something like that would have been written about somewhere.” In hindsight, Jackson thinks the whole scam was pretty comical. He said you had experts on TV doing careful analyses of the paper labels inside these kits, when in reality, all they had to do was use a magnifying glass to see that the letters were printed by a dot matrix.

        "It’s like doing a metallurgic study on a brand new Mercedes-Benz," he said. “I didn’t have to get a microscope out and a black light and spend an hour fondling it. It’s common sense.”

        Jonathan Ferguson, a curator at the UK-based National Museum of Arms and Armour, also debunked these hunting trunks. He wrote in a blog post, “Nowhere was there evidence to support real vampire slayers carting about one of these kits.”

        Still, he wrote that they were somewhat valuable as “genuine artifacts of the Gothic fiction,” and rather than being seen as fakes (since there never was a Victorian original), should be seen as "'hyperreal' or invented artifacts somewhat akin to stage, screen or magician's props."

        As for the Sotheby's kit that was snatched up for $25,000, its creation was also probably inspired by the popularity of Dracula (1897) and other late 19th century vampire lore, according to Dennis Harrington, head of Sotheby's European furniture department in New York City. Harrington notes that some of the pieces inside the kit are valuable in their own right.

        "[The kit] was complete and did contain individual elements that have some intrinsic value themselves, like silver bullets and an ivory figure of Christ on the Cross (though we can no longer sell ivory items today) ..." Harrington tells Mental Floss. "The curiosity value would also have helped, and of course the golden rule of auctions is that any one lot is worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it on a particular day."

        Likewise, the skeleton rocking chairs—despite not being antiques—certainly have their own unique appeal. “They’re cool, they’re neat. These are ‘man cave’ type things for the most part,” Jackson says. However, “They’re obviously not functional. You can’t sit in it comfortably.”

        And what of the skeleton meme? Do the makers of these chairs know that their creation has been turned into an absurd internetism? Jackson, for his part, hadn’t heard anything about it. “I’m glad they made a joke out of [the chairs],” he said, “but I don’t know what meme means.”

        13 Facts About the Chauvet Cave Paintings

        A view taken on June 13, 2014 shows paintings of animal figures on the rock walls of the Chauvet Cave in Vallon Pont d'Arc.
        A view taken on June 13, 2014 shows paintings of animal figures on the rock walls of the Chauvet Cave in Vallon Pont d'Arc.
        Jeff Pachoud, AFP/Getty Images

        Discovered by accident in 1994, the cave paintings adorning the walls of Chauvet Cave in France are among the oldest and most beautiful figurative art in human history. About 36,000 years ago, the ancient artists drew lifelike beasts that seem to gallop, crawl, and frolic through the cave’s chambers. In one stunning triptych, 50 drawings of horses, lions, and reindeer cavort across 49 feet of limestone wall. The cave paintings even impressed filmmaker Werner Herzog enough to make a documentary (available on Netflix). Here are a few more facts about the Chauvet Cave paintings.

        1. The Chauvet Cave paintings were discovered by three local explorers.

        It was December 18, 1994. French cavers Jean-Marie Chauvet, Éliette Brunel Deschamps, and Christian Hillaire had spent the day exploring the Pont d’Arc caves in the Ardèche region in southern France. They came upon an array of fallen rocks and noticed a gentle woosh of air from beneath the rock pile. Prying aside the stones, they found an aperture and dropped down into a large chamber with a high ceiling that appeared to branch off into other chambers. Their headlamps illuminated several handprints and a red ochre painting of a mammoth on the wall of one chamber. At that moment, they knew they had stumbled onto a major archaeological discovery.

        2. Chauvet Cave was formed by an underground river.

        Replica of the Chauvet Cave paintings
        A detail of the full-scale reproduction of frescos found at the cave of Pont-D'Arc, also known as the Chauvet Cave, on April 8, 2015 in Vallon Pont D'Arc. The frescos were reproduced by French graphic artist and researcher Gilles Tosello to replicate the Chauvet Cave, which is located in the Ardèche region of southern France.
        Jeff Pachoud, AFP/Getty Images

        Subterranean rivers flowing through the area's limestone hills created Chauvet Cave, along with hundreds of other gorges and caverns in the Ardèche. Chauvet Cave is about 1300 feet (roughly a quarter-mile) long with 14 chambers branching off the largest room, the Chamber of the Bear Hollows—the first one discovered by Chauvet, Brunel Deschamps, and Hillaire. This chamber, closest to the entrance, features no cave paintings; flooding is thought to have washed away any artwork. The most decorated vestibules are farthest from the entrance and include the Hillaire Chamber, Red Panels Gallery, Skull Chamber, the Megaloceros Gallery, and the End Chamber.

        3. The Chauvet Cave painters were Aurignacians.

        Aurignacians, the first anatomically modern humans in Europe, lived during the Upper Paleolithic, or Old Stone Age, between 46,000 and 26,000 years ago. (Aurignacian also refers to this time period.) Aurignacian culture is characterized by the first figurative drawings and carvings, the invention of a flaked stone tool called a burin used for engraving, bone and antler tools, jewelry, and the oldest-known musical instruments.

        In addition to the Chauvet Cave paintings, Aurignacian animal and human figurines have been found in other parts of Europe. At the Hohle Fels cave in southwestern Germany, archaeologists discovered the oldest known Venus statuette, dating from 40,000 to 35,000 years ago, and some of the oldest known bone flutes from the same time period. In Southeast Asia, a cave in Borneo bears the oldest known figurative painting, created at least 40,000 years ago.

        4. Ancient humans visited Chauvet Cave during two separate millennia.

        A reproduction of a hand stencil found in Chauvet Cave
        Picture taken on October 12, 2012 in Vallon-Pont-d'Arc of the facsimile of the Chauvet cave.
        Jeff Pachoud, AFP/Getty Images

        According to paleontologist Michel-Alain Garcia in Chauvet Cave: The Art of Earliest Times, radiocarbon dating of organic materials in Chauvet Cave suggest people used the cave during two different time periods. In the first, about 36,500 years ago during the Aurignacian, artists drew the majority of the Chauvet Cave paintings. They brought wood into the cave and burned it to create light and charcoal for drawing. Then, for an unknown reason, the Aurignacians abandoned the cave for about five or six thousand years, and it was taken over by cave bears. In the second instance of human use, about 31,000 to 30,000 years ago in the Gravettian period, humans left behind footprints, scorch marks from torches, and charcoal, but no artwork.

        5. Fourteen animal species are represented in the Chauvet Cave paintings.

        The most common animals in the Chauvet Cave paintings are cave lions, mammoths, and woolly rhinoceroses; all coexisted with the Aurignacians in Europe, but are now extinct. Along with depictions of cave bears, the four species make up 65 percent of the species in the paintings. The other are bison, horses, reindeer, red deer, ibex, aurochs (an extinct wild ancestor of domesticated cattle), the extinct Megaloceros deer (also called the Irish elk or giant deer), musk ox, panthers, and an owl. The paintings are notable for depicting not just figurative representations of the animals, but actual scenes that reveal the animals’ real behavior—like two woolly rhinoceroses butting horns, and a pride of lions stalking a group of bison.

        6. Non-animal themes also pop up in Chauvet Cave paintings.

        Palm prints in red paint found in Chauvet Cave
        A view taken on June 13, 2014 shows paintings on the rock walls of the Chauvet cave, in Vallon Pont d'Arc.
        Jeff Pachoud, AFP/Getty Images

        In the middle chambers of Chauvet Cave, several walls and overhanging rocks are decorated with red dots made by human palms and stencils of human hands. In the farthest galleries of the cave, five triangular representations of a woman’s pubic area are scratched on to the walls, and one picture of a woman’s lower body similar in profile to Paleolithic Venus figurines is drawn on a stalactite-like rock pendant. Anthropologists are not sure what they’re meant to symbolize.

        7. A prehistoric child’s footprints were discovered in Chauvet Cave.

        A single track of footprints measuring 230 feet long was found in the soft clay floor of the cave’s Gallery of the Crosshatching. Researchers analyzed modern European feet that were estimated to be roughly equivalent to those of European Early Modern Humans and determined that the track was probably made by a young boy about 4.5 feet tall. Scientists were able to date the prints based on the marks left by a burning torch on the roof of the gallery. “The child regularly wiped his torch on [the vault] above his path. These charcoal marks, dated to 26,000 years ago, seem to have been placed contrary to the direction of progress on purpose, as if to mark the way back,” Garcia writes. Two bits of charcoal were retrieved from the substrate and dated to a period between 31,430 years and 25,440 years ago.

        8. The child might have had a pet dog.

        The adolescent boy’s footprints are near those of a large canid—possibly a wolf. When Garcia took a closer look, he noticed the length of the middle digit was shorter than a wolf’s, a trait more typical of a domesticated dog. But in the 1990s, when Garcia made the find, the oldest undisputed fossil evidence of a domesticated dog dated back only 14,200 years before present.

        A 2017 study that built on previous research, however, compared genomes of three Neolithic dogs with those of more than 5000 canines, including modern wolves and dogs. The researchers concluded that dogs and wolves split genetically sometime between 41,500 and 36,900 years ago, and a second divergence of eastern and western dogs occurred between 23,900 and 17,500 years ago. That puts the window of domestication between 40,000 and 20,000 years ago—the same time as the Aurignacian child and his very good boy were walking through Chauvet Cave.

        9. Chauvet cave provided shelter for bears.

        Outline of a cave bear head in Chauvet Cave
        A view taken on June 13, 2014 shows paintings on the rock walls of the Chauvet cave, in Vallon Pont d'Arc.
        Jeff Pachoud, AFP/Getty Images

        Larger than modern grizzlies, cave bears spent winters in Chauvet Cave for thousands of years before humans began painting in it. They left claw scratches on the walls and dozens of tracks and footprints in the floor. In the Chamber of the Bear Hollows, researchers have found more than 300 hollows (sleeping spots that bears wore into the cave floor) and dozens of bear tracks and paw prints, made after humans stopped visiting the cave. About 2500 cave bear bones and 170 skulls were scattered throughout the cave’s main chambers. When scientists first investigated the cave in the mid-1990s, they found a cave bear skull carefully placed on a large stone in the middle of a deep chamber, in a way that only humans could have done.

        10. The cave also provided shelter for a lot of wolves.

        The floor of the Brunel Chamber, directly south of the Chamber of the Bear Hollows, showed multiple wolf prints that indicated a large number of “fissipeds” (pad-footed carnivores) had trampled the ground. Bear prints were superimposed on the wolf prints, suggesting that the bears came in after the wolves.

        Not only large carnivores occupied the cave—judging from the variety of bones, it was practically a prehistoric zoo. In addition to the wolf, ibex, and bear bones, prehistorian Jean Clottes reported finding those of foxes, martens (a kind of weasel), roe deer, horses, birds, rodents, bats, and reptiles. And, yes, he also found fossilized wolf poop, indicating the wolves probably went into the cave in search of carrion.

        11. No one knows why the Chauvet Cave paintings were created.

        Chauvet Cave paintings
        A detail of the full-scale reproduction of frescos found at the cave of Pont-D'Arc also known as the Chauvet cave, on April 8, 2015 in Vallon Pont D'Arc. The frescos were reproduced by French graphic artist and researcher Gilles Tosello to replicate the Chauvet Cave, located in the Ardèche region of southern France.
        Jeff Pachoud, AFP/Getty Images

        The purpose behind the Chauvet Cave paintings is a mystery, but some characteristics of the artwork may offer clues. Researchers have noted that the primary species depicted—cave bear, lion, mammoth, and rhinoceros—were not prey species that Aurignacians pursued for food, possibly suggesting that the paintings weren’t meant to ensure bountiful hunting.

        A 2016 study hinted that the Chauvet Cave artists may have been recording contemporary events. Jean-Michel Geneste and colleagues proposed that a spray-like design in the Megaloceros Gallery was a faithful depiction of a volcanic eruption that occurred in the nearby Bas-Vivaris region between 40,000 and 30,000 years ago. If that is true, Chauvet Cave boasts the oldest known painting of volcanic activity, smoking the previous record holder—a 9000-year-old mural in central Turkey—by 28,000 years.

        12. When Werner Herzog entered Chauvet Cave, he was overwhelmed.

        Filmmaker Werner Herzog accompanied researchers into the depths of the cave system to make his 2010 documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams (available to stream on Netflix). Herzog’s grandfather was an archaeologist, and Herzog himself once earned money as a ball boy at a tennis court to buy a book about cave art. “Even though in a way I knew what was waiting for me because I had seen photos, I was in complete and overwhelming awe,” Herzog told The A.V. Club in 2011. “The mysterious origins of it—we don’t know why they were made, and why in complete darkness and not next to the entrance.”

        13. You can visit a scale replica of the Chauvet Cave paintings.

        The world-famous Paleolithic cave paintings at Lascaux, not far from Pont d’Arc, were damaged by the exhalations of thousands of visitors after the cave was opened to the public in 1948. So, immediately after Chauvet Cave was discovered, scientists moved to protect the fragile paintings and closed it to the public; now, only scholars are allowed in during brief windows of time. But that doesn’t mean you can’t see a simulation of the artwork up close. In 2015, a scale replica of the Chauvet Cave paintings, dubbed the Caverne du Pont d’Arc, opened near the site of the actual cave. Engineers and artists faithfully recreated not just the dazzling paintings, but also the temperature, dampness, murk, and funky smell of the original.

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