Why Vincent Van Gogh Painted Sunflowers

While Vincent van Gogh painted over 300 works, he is perhaps best remembered, by many, for his sunflowers. So why did he paint them?

Some of Vincent van Gogh's most famous works are his Sunflower series. He painted a total of twelve of these canvases, although the most commonly referred to are the seven he painted while in Arles in 1888 - 1889. The other five he had painted previously while in Paris in 1887.

While Vincent himself never actually stated why he liked the sunflowers in particular, references to them are made in his many letters, which help give us some idea. In a letter to his sister dated 21 August 1888, he talks of his friend Gauguin coming to live with him in Arles. Then goes on to say that he "˜intends to decorate the whole studio with nothing but sunflowers.' He went on to write further, to his brother Theo, on the same day, "˜Now that I hope to live with Gauguin in a studio of our own, I want to make decorations for the studio. Nothing but big flowers. Next door to your shop, in the restaurant, you know there is a lovely decoration of flowers, I always remember the big sunflowers in the window there.'

In another letter to Theo dated the 9th of September 1888, he wrote, "˜The room you will have then, or Gauguin if he comes, will have white walls with a decoration of great yellow sunflowers. In the morning, when you open the window, you see the green of the gardens and the rising sun, and the road into the town. But you will see these great pictures of the sunflowers, 12 or 14 to the bunch, crammed into this tiny boudoir with its pretty bed and everything else dainty. It will not be commonplace"¦.It will have a feeling of Daumier about it"¦.'

Gauguin did appear to like the sunflowers as was proven by a couple of Vincent's later letters to Theo. But it is unsure if he had painted them for Gauguin as an apology for the huge fight they had had, (where Vincent cut off his ear), or was it simply Vincent's expression of color. Apparently Vincent and Gauguin had exchanged some paintings, and Gauguin favored the Sunflowers, bit as Vincent had already given him two of the canvases, he was not disposed to give him any more. (Letter to Theo 17 January 1889.)

Vincent had quite an attachment to the flowers personally. In the year before his death he wrote to his brother "˜It is a kind of painting that rather changes in character, and takes on a richness the longer you look at it"¦You know the peony is Jeannins, the hollyhock belongs to Quost, but the sunflower is somewhat my own.' In many of his letters he spoke glowingly of the richness of color that he saw in the Sunflowers, and his desire to paint them quickly before they faded.

But whether Vincent painted the sunflowers because he was trying to please Gauguin, or because he really loved the sunflowers for themselves as they appealed to his joy in color, he certainly left us a legacy to enjoy.

Quotes gratefully obtained from the ultimate Vincent van Gogh website, and the book Vincent van Gogh, by Marc Edo Tralbaut, first edition 1969.

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