Arts Everyday Living: Van Gogh’s Sunflowers–The Haunting of Gauguin


Paul Gauguin, Self Portrait Dedicated to Carriere, 1888 or 1889, oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.




No other artists in the history of art have been so closely identified with each other as Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh.  Their often volatile relationship has been dramatized in numerous books and movies, focusing particularly on their nine-week stay together in Arles in southern France during the final months of 1888.  An experience that began positively, signaling the start of an artistic colony, the Studio of the South,  but ended in tragedy in an incident that seems to be universally known, whatever your background in art.  For just a few days before Christmas, Van Gogh cut off his ear (actually his ear lobe) and started his long descent into mental illness.

We know the details from Gauguin, because he was there. According to his account he was possibly the original target of Van Gogh’s frenzy, caused by the latter’s realization that his friend Paul was leaving him. However, Van Gogh turned his anger upon himself, cutting off his ear and then taking it to one of the prostitutes at a local brothel.

Gauguin and Van Gogh never did see each other again.  Vincent would commit suicide over a year and a half later, leaving to posterity some 2,000 works of art.

Yet, there is a sequel to this story.  Because Gauguin and Van Gogh continued their friendship at a distance, exchanging letters up to Vincent’s death. Their mutual love and  passion  for art bonding the two, even during Vincent’s sojourn in a mental institution, where he was allowed to keep creating such masterpieces as Starry Night, often considered a symbol of our own times.

A different subject, though, connected Gauguin to Van Gogh: the sunflowers, another icon of Vincent’s artistic career.   For Vincent painted them expressively for his friend Gauguin, back in August 1888, in anticipation of Paul moving into the house that the two would share in Arles.  Ultimately, decorating Gauguin’s bedroom with his vision of the sunflowers.

And the beauty of that room haunted Gauguin during the thirteen years that he survived Vincent. Paul would write of the unforgettable sunflowers with purple eyes that shone golden in the sunlight passing through the curtains of the bedroom.  Remembering them long after, as if he could still see Van Gogh’s extraordinary creations before him.

Even when Gauguin moved to the exotic world of Tahiti where he lived for most of the last decade of his life, he could not escape the memory of Vincent and his sunflowers. Ill, alone, and far from his native country of France, Gauguin probably spent his days dwelling on the past, particularly his time with Vincent.  For in October 1898, close to ten years after first viewing of the sunflowers that had filled the walls of his bedroom in Arles, Gauguin wrote to a friend to send him some sunflower seeds.

So in the midst of the tropical flowers of Tahiti, Gauguin tended his garden of imported sunflowers until September, 1901, when he was ready to recreate them with his brush. Not one, but four canvases would result, as if Gauguin could not stop until he had fulfilled his own vision of the sunflowers. Two of them, both titled Still Life with Sunflowers on an Armchair are darker, more naturalistic in appearance, while Still Life with Sunflowers and Mangoes blooms with the dream-like colors of Gauguin’s imagination. Sunflowers with Puvis de Chavanne’s Hope overflows its wooden Tahitian vessel with the bounty of fertility and growth.

Soon after their completion, Gauguin would leave for the Marquesas Islands, a remote island chain some 750 miles away. He would die there a few years later, in 1903, ultimately becoming like his friend Vincent, one of the legends of art.

GOOGLING GAUUIN (1848-1903). Here are four of Gauguin’s sunflower tributes to his friend Van Gogh:

Still Life with Sunflowers on an Armchair, 1901, Hermitage Museum, Saints Petersburg

Still Life with Sunflowers on an Armchair, 1901, Emil G. Buhrle, Zurich

Still Life with Sunflowers and Mangoes, 1901, Private Collection

Sunflowers with Puvis de Chavanne’s Hope, 1901, Private Collection

GOOGLING VAN GOGH (1853-1890): And don’t forget Van Gogh’s sunflowers, the inspiration for Gauguin:

Sunflowers, 1888, National Gallery, London

Sunflowers (Repetition), 1889, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Sunflowers, 1888, Neue Pinakothek, Munich

Sunflowers (Repetition), 1889, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia



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