Van Gogh’s Sunflowers: the story behind a masterpiece

For nearly a century, Sunflowers by Vincent van Gogh has been among the paintings most loved by the British public. According to Martin Bailey in his excellent book on the subject, The Sunflowers are Mine, the patch of floor in front of it “gets more scuffed” than that in front of any other work in the National Gallery, and its postcard outsells all others in the bookshop. Mrs Thatcher, displaying more enthusiasm than botanical precision on a visit to the museum, demanded to be shown “Van Gogh’s Chrysanthemums”, (and no curator dared correct her).

From today, there will be even more visitors’ feet on that much-used area of flooring, because the National Gallery’s Sunflowers is going to be reunited with another version of the same composition painted by Van Gogh a few months later, in what promises to be a remarkable exercise in artistic compare and contrast.

For, although the National Gallery’s picture is, in general estimation, the most important, daring and beautiful of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers it is by no means the only one. The artist, who lived from 1853 to 1890, tackled the theme on numerous occasions.

The flower that turns its bloom towards the sun has a long history as a symbol – of the Christian soul, among other things. In Britain, the sunflower motif was so popular with architects and designers of the Aesthetic movement that it was carved in stone and cast in metalwork that can still be seen across the city today. Before he became an artist, Van Gogh would have seen the emblem frequently during his early years in 1870s Britain, where he worked (unsuccessfully) as an art dealer, junior prep school master and lay preacher.

It was in 1887. however, by which time Van Gogh was living in Paris – and discovering the palette of the French Impressionists – that he first painted the flowers himself. Around a year later, living alone and isolated in Arles, he returned to the subject.

From the moment of his arrival in Provence on February 20, Van Gogh’s art moved forward at a furious pace. The fields of ripe wheat which he painted in June and July were magnificent. But the most extraordinary pictures he produced in that summer were the Sunflowers.

Van Gogh embarked on these on Monday, August 20, temporarily forced to work indoors by a Mistral wind which, he complained, blew over his canvas and easel when he painted outdoors. By August 26, he had finished four sunflower pictures – which in itself is a token of the dangerous velocity at which he was moving at that point, painting at warp speed.

That quartet of sunflower pictures itself shows a startling evolution in forcefulness and daring. The first, of three blooms in a green-glazed vase against a turquoise backdrop, was brilliant in colour but relatively conventional in its naturalism. The next, with six yellow flowers backed by rich royal blue, was more audacious (this was destroyed in a bombing raid on Japan in the Second World War).

It was the last two in the sequence with which the artist himself was most pleased, and signed. One of these, now in Munich, arrayed 14 sunflowers in a yellow pot against a complementary blue-green wall. But the final one, the National Gallery picture, was the boldest of all, because it depicted yellow flowers in a yellow jug against a yellow wall – a symphony in ochres, golds and shades of corn.

At one point, Van Gogh planned to paint 12 sunflower pictures to hang on the walls of his dwelling (the Yellow House). But the weather improved, and – characteristically – he raced off on another idea. His satisfaction with the last two of the four August Sunflower pictures was shown, however, by the fact that when Gauguin finally arrived for a short, fraught stay with Van Gogh in Arles – the most famous house-share in art history – those were among the paintings hung in the place of honour on his bedroom walls. In late November and early December, Gauguin painted a portrait of Van Gogh, portraying him at work before a bouquet of blooms, as The Painter of Sunflowers.

Within weeks of his abrupt departure from Arles following the ear-cutting episode, Gauguin wrote asking to be given the National Gallery picture of the 15 blooms, yellow on yellow. It was probably this request that prompted Van Gogh to paint copies of both the yellow-on-blue-green and yellow-on-yellow Sunflowers. It is one of the latter, now owned by the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam that is going to come to London.

In the yellow-on-yellow Sunflowers, Gauguin chose one of the most shockingly innovative pictures then in existence. He quoted a fellow painter exclaiming about Van Gogh’s work: “Merde! Everything is yellow! I don’t know what painting is any more!” Looking back on his work of 1888, Van Gogh felt it was characterised by a “high yellow note”, by which he meant both the bright colour and also the manic mental moods he had experienced while painting.

At an exhibition in Brussels in January 1890 a Belgian artist threatened to withdraw his own pictures as he did not wish “to find himself in the same room as the laughable pot of sunflowers by Mr Vincent”. He called Van Gogh, who was at that point in an asylum at St Remy, “an ignoramus and a charlatan”, whereupon Vincent’s friend Toulouse-Lautrec challenged him to a duel. Bloodshed was averted with difficulty.

The Sunflowers continued to cause outrage into the 20th century. When the epoch-making exhibition Manet and the Post-Impressionists opened in London in November 1910, it contained not one, but two of the Sunflowers. This was the first real exposure of the British public to modern art, and Van Gogh’s flowers were one of the targets of a vintage explosion of philistinism.

The critic of the Morning Post complained that Van Gogh was a lunatic, and his work of interest only to “the student of pathology”. But the Sunflowers were a revelation to some viewers. A decade later, the writer Katherine Mansfield described seeing a Van Gogh picture at the exhibition of “yellow flowers – brimming with sun in a pot”. Those blooms “lived with me afterwards”, and still did, “I can smell them as I write.”

Mansfield’s sensibility was more powerful than her botanical accuracy (sunflowers do not really have a scent). But she was not alone in her reaction. The Bloomsbury critic Desmond MacCarthy, secretary of the exhibition, would lead visitors up to Sunflowers, “and say, ‘There!’ ” Then, after a pause for the picture to make its impression, he would add, “Did you ever see a still-life picture with one tenth of the energy in it that has?”

A young enthusiast for new art named Harold “Jim” Ede (1895-1990), who later founded Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, did much to ensure that Van Gogh’s greatest Sunflowers eventually came to London. In 1923, Ede, then working at the National Gallery, Millbank – subsequently renamed the Tate Gallery – travelled to the Netherlands. After the death of Vincent in 1890 followed by that of his brother, Theo, early the next year, almost all Van Gogh’s works and the bulk of his correspondence had ended up in the possession of Theo’s widow, Jo Bonger.

Ede saw many masterpieces in Bonger’s Amsterdam apartment. But, he wrote to Bonger from his hotel, “What touches me most directly are the golden sunflowers.” He asked if she might sell the picture, “to be exhibited at the fountainhead of England’s art”. She replied insisting the picture would always stay in the family.

However, the next year, after further pleas, Bonger unexpectedly gave in. She had felt she could not bear to part with this painting, but in the end decided to make the sacrifice. Even more surprisingly, she parted not with Vincent’s copy but with the original of August 1888. “No picture,” she wrote, “would represent Vincent in your famous Gallery in a more worthy manner than the Sunflowers.” She added that, “He himself, le Peintre des Tournesols” — “the Painter of Sunflowers”, as Gauguin had called him – “would have liked it to be there”.

Certainly, they seemed to belong, and quickly became a touchstone in British culture. In 1925, a year after they entered the National collection, D H Lawrence began his essay ‘Morality and the Novel’, by taking Sunflowers as an example of everything a work of art should do, that is, reveal the relation between man and his circumambient universe, in the living moment. In the painting, Lawrence argued, Vincent had captured “the vivid relationship between himself as a man, and the sunflower as a sunflower, at that quick moment of time”.

The Sunflowers stood for light and energy against the dinginess of the north. David Hockney – a sun-seeking artist whose vivid palette owes much to Van Gogh – painted his own sunflowers in tribute to Van Gogh. So too did another, the Kitchen Sink School artist John Bratby, whose gigantic woodcut of a single sunflower hung in my school dining hall.

True, the Sunflowers also became a bit of a cliché. When Charles Ryder, the hero of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945), arrived as an undergraduate at Oxford in the Twenties, on his first afternoon he decorated his college room. “I proudly hung a reproduction of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers over the fire and set up a screen, painted by Roger Fry with a Provencal landscape.” Later, after Ryder meets Sebastian Flyte and develops what Waugh and his circle felt was a more sophisticated taste for Pre-Raphaelite art, the Van Gogh print and Roger Fry screen are quietly taken down.

But Sunflowers – and for that matter Fry’s Bloomsbury modernism – easily survived cycles of fashion and even its own enormous familiarity.

For many people in pre- and post-war Britain, the painting came to stand for something positive and optimistic. Katherine Mansfield not only remembered the Sunflowers, she learnt from them: “They taught me something about writing… a kind of freedom – or rather, shaking free.” That is another of the multiple meanings of those yellow blooms. Probably it was very much what the artist felt when he painted them, all on his own in his studio in Arles.

Originally published in the Daily Telegraph

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