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.

        Wish You Could ‘Shazam’ a Piece of Art? With Magnus, You Can

        Manuel-F-O/iStock via Getty Images
        Manuel-F-O/iStock via Getty Images

        While museum artworks are often accompanied by tidy little placards that tell you the basics—title, artist, year, medium, dimensions, etc.—that’s not always the standard for art galleries and fairs. For people who don’t love tracking down a staff member every time they’d like to know more about a particular work, there’s Magnus, a Shazam-like app that lets you snap a photo of an artwork and will then tell you the title, artist, last price, and more.

        The New York Times reports that Magnus has a primarily crowdsourced database of more than 10 million art images. Though the idea of creating Shazam for art seems fairly straightforward, the execution has been relatively complex, partially because of the sheer quantity of art in the world. As founder Magnus Resch explained to The New York Times, “There is a lot more art in the world than there are songs.”

        Structural diversity in art adds another challenge to the process: it’s difficult for image recognition technology to register 3D objects like sculptures, however famous they may be. Resch also has to dodge copyright violations; he maintains that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act applies to his app, since the photos are taken and shared by users, but he still has had to remove some content. All things considered, Magnus’s approximate match rate of 70 percent is pretty impressive.

        Since the process of buying and selling art often includes negotiation and prices can fluctuate drastically, Magnus gives potential purchasers the background information they need to at least decide whether they’re interested in pursuing a particular piece. Just like browsing around a boutique where prices aren’t included on the items, a lack of transparency can be a deterrent for new customers.

        Such was the case for Jelena Cohen, a Colgate-Palmolive brand manager who bought her first photograph with the help of Magnus. “I used to go to these art fairs, and I felt embarrassed or shy, because nothing’s listed,” she told The New York Times. “I loved that the app could scan a piece and give you the exact history of it, when it was last sold, and the price it was sold for. That helped me negotiate.” Through Magnus, you can also keep track of artworks you’ve scanned in your digital collection, search for artworks by artist, and share images to social media.

        One thing Magnus can’t do, however, is tell you whether an artwork is authentic or not. The truth is that sometimes even art experts have trouble doing that, as evidenced by the long history of notorious art forgeries.

        [h/t The New York Times]

        'The Far Side' May Be Making a Comeback Online

        tilo/iStock, Getty Images Plus
        tilo/iStock, Getty Images Plus

        For the first time ever, it’s looking increasingly likely that cartoonist Gary Larson’s "The Far Side" will be available in a medium other than book collections or page-a-day calendars. A (slightly ambiguous) announcement on the official "Far Side" website promises that “a new online era” for the strip is coming soon.

        From 1980 to 1995, "The Far Side" presented a wonderfully irreverent universe in which hunters had much to fear from armed and verbose deer, cows possessed a rich internal life, scientific experiments often went awry, and irony became a central conceit. In one of the more famous strips frequently pasted to refrigerator doors, a small child could be seen pushing on a door marked “pull.” Above him was a sign marking the building as a school for the gifted. In another strip, a woman is depicted looking nervously around a forest while cradling a vacuum cleaner. The caption: “The woods were dark and foreboding, and Alice sensed that sinister eyes were watching her every step. Worst of all, she knew that Nature abhorred a vacuum.”

        Unlike most of his contemporaries, like Berkeley Breathed ("Bloom County") and Bill Watterson ("Calvin and Hobbes"), Larson has resisted reproduction of his work online. He famously circulated a letter to "Far Side" fan sites asking them to stop posting the single-panel strips, writing that the idea of his work being found on random websites was bothersome. “These cartoons are my ‘children,’ of sorts, and like a parent, I’m concerned about where they go at night without telling me,” he wrote.

        Many obliged Larson, though the strip could still be found here and there. That he’s seemingly embracing a new method of distribution is good news for fans, but there’s no concrete evidence the now-retired cartoonist will be following in Breathed’s footsteps and producing new strips. ("Bloom County" returned as a Facebook comic in 2015.) The only indication of Larson’s active involvement is a new piece of art on the site’s landing page depicting some familiar "Far Side" characters being unthawed in a block of ice.

        Larson’s comments on a return are few and far between. In 1998, he told The New York Times that going back to a strip was unlikely. “I don’t think so,” he said. “Never say never, but there’s a sense of ‘been there, done that.’” In that same profile, it was noted that 33 million "Far Side" books had been sold.

        [h/t A.V. Club]

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