Van Gogh’s Sunflowers: The Haunting of Gauguin

The following blog was first published in April, 2011.

Sunflowers?  By Gauguin?  Sunflowers are famously associated with Van Gogh.  However, Vincent’s friend, colleague, and sometimes nemesis, Paul Gauguin, created his own interpretations of the golden floral symbol of southern France where Van Gogh and Gauguin once resided together.

Except that Gauguin painted his sunflowers in Tahiti in 1901 long after Van Gogh completed  his final sunflower.  For Vincent had decorated the walls of Gauguin’s bedroom with sunflowers in his honor back in 1888, when the two had shared  Van Gogh’s tiny rented house in Arles. Yet, their days as roommates were limited and the relationship ended tragically when Vincent cut off his ear, signaling his descent into mental illness.

Although they never saw each other again, Van Gogh and Gauguin continued to correspond, 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 continued to work, creating such masterpieces as Starry Night.

So let’s enjoy a mini-exhibition of sunflowers by the artists, beginning with the painting that started both Van Gogh and Gauguin on what could be considered their obsession with the subject.  In this version by Vincent, he focuses on only two sunflowers, providing us with the almost startling close-up of the face of the one turned toward us. It was done in Paris in 1887, around the time Van Gogh met Gauguin, who had just returned from the Caribbean island of Martinique.  To commemorate their new friendship, they exchanged paintings.

Vincent gave Gauguin, Two Sunflowers.

Vincent van Gogh, Two Sunflowers, 1887, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

And Gauguin presented Vincent with The Mango Trees, Martinique,

Paul Gauguin, The Mango Trees, Martinique, 1887, oil on canvas, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands

The two sunflowers would expand to twelve, even fourteen flowers  in August, 1888, as Vincent embarked on a new series  The impending arrival of Gauguin was Van Gogh’s inspiration (although Paul did not actually move  to Arles until October). As Vincent wrote to his brother Theo, “Nothing but big sunflowers….If I carry out this idea there will be a dozen panels.  So the whole thing will be a symphony in blue and yellow.”

Van Gogh was not able to fulfill his ambitious goal, but he did complete at least four canvases of the sunflowers for his friend.  Two were modest arrangements, including this painting still in a private collection (the other one was destroyed during World War II).

Vincent Van Gogh, Sunflowers, 1888, Private Collection

The other pair hung in Gauguin’s bedroom, one with a blue (sometime described as turquoise) background that is now in the Neue Pinakothek in Munich.

Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers, 1888, oil on canvas, Neue Pinakothek, Munich, Germany

Here is a detail of the Munich painting.

Vincent Van Gogh, Sunflowers, 1888, Neue Pinakothek, Munich, detail

While the second  version of the sunflowers has a yellow background and is now currently in the collection of the National Gallery in London.

Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers, 1888, oil on canvas, National Gallery, London, UK

Gauguin never forgot that room and its glorious paintings, although when he wrote movingly about his experience years later, it was the London sunflowers he appeared to remember.

In my yellow room, sunflowers with purple eyes stand out on a yellow background; they bathe their stems in a yellow pot on a yellow table.  In the corner of the painting, the signature of the painter: Vincent.  And the yellow sun that passes through the yellow curtain of my room floods all this illumination with gold; and in the morning upon awakening from my bed, I imagine that all this smells very good.

Even when Gauguin moved to the exotic world of Tahiti, where he lived for most of the last decade of his life, the artist could not escape the memory of Vicent 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 living with Van Gogh.  For in October, 1898, close to ten years after his 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 tropical Tahiti, Gauguin tended his garden of imported sunflowers until  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.

Paul Gauguin, Sunflowers on a Chair, 1901, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia

Paul Gauguin, Sunflowers on a Chair, 1901, oil on canvas, Private Collection

While Still Life with Sunflowers and Mangoes blooms with the dream-like colors of Gauguin’s imagination.

Gauguin, Still Life with Sunflowers and Mangoes, 1901, Private Collection

And Sunflowers with Puvis de Chavannes’s Hope, the painting that is worth millions today, overflows its wooden Tahitian vessel with the bounty of fertility and growth.

Paul Gauguin, Puvis de Chavannes’s Hope, 1901, oil on canvas, Private Collection

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

(Note: the excerpt for Van Gogh’s letter is from The Letters of Van Gogh, edited by Mark Roskill, while the quotes from Gauguin’s writings are from The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Provence by Martin Gayford and Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South by Douglas Druick.).





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