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The Significance of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers

by VanGoghology
The Significance of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers: A Closer Look At His Most Famous Paintings.

Vincent Van Gogh is a name synonymous with emotion, passion, thickly applied paint, and vivid colors. The Dutch artist created some of the most iconic works of art in history, and his Sunflower paintings are some of his most recognizable creations. These paintings have come to represent Van Gogh’s art and his distinct methodology, which continues to inspire artists around the world. In this article, we will take a closer look at the significance of sunflowers, and explore some of his most famous works.

1. Why Sunflowers?

Sunflowers captivated Vincent and he painted them frequently during his career. In August 1888, he wrote to his brother Theo: “I’m painting with the gusto of a Marseillais eating [tooltips keyword=”bouillabaisse,” content=” a traditional Provencal fish soup “] which won’t surprise you when it’s a question of painting large Sunflowers.

He had rented the Yellow House in the southern French city of Arles and decided to paint sunflowers to brighten up the bedrooms. Vincent created a series in vases while in Arles, each with a unique color scheme producing a lively and energetic mood.

3. The Symbolism of Sunflowers

Sunflowers have a symbolic meaning in Van Gogh’s art. They represent the cycle of life, from birth to death. The sunflower’s life cycle, from seed to flower to seed again, is a metaphor for the human life cycle. In Van Gogh’s paintings, the sunflowers are depicted in various stages of life, from budding to full bloom to wilting.

4. The Colors of Sunflowers

Van Gogh’s use of color in the Sunflowers series bears unmistakable testimony to his overt avant-garde strategy. The vibrant yellow hues and the contrasting blues and greens create a striking effect that captures the viewer’s attention. Pairing expressive hues with impasto, the combination adds an impassioned vitality.

I have 3 canvases on the go, 1) 3 large flowers in a green vase, light background (no. 15 canvas), 2) 3 flowers, one flower that’s gone to seed and lost its petals and a bud on a royal blue background (no. 25 canvas), 3) twelve flowers and buds in a yellow vase (no. 30 canvas). So the last one is light on light, and will be the best, I hope. I’ll probably not stop there. In the hope of living in a studio of our own with Gauguin, I’d like to do a decoration for the studio. Nothing but large Sunflowers.

This was two months before Gauguin had moved in.

Vincent Van Gogh Three Sunflowers F453 1
Sunflowers in a Vase F453 / JH1559
Six Sunflowers 1888 Koyata Yamamoto
Sunflowers in a vase F459 / JH1560
Van Gogh The Starry Night detail - Venus.
Sunflowers in a vase F456 / JH1561
5. The Influence of Japanese Art

Van Gogh was influenced by Japanese art, and this influence is evident in his Sunflower paintings. He was fascinated by Japanese woodblock prints, which were known for their bright colors and bold lines. Van Gogh incorporated these elements into his art, creating a unique style that was both modern and traditional.

I want to stuff at least 6 very large canvases into this tiny little room, the way the Japanese do, especially the huge bouquets of sunflowers
To Willemien van Gogh – Sept 1888
 

6. The Legacy of the Sunflower Paintings

Van Gogh painted two series of sunflowers between 1887 and 1889. The first set of Sunflowers executed in Paris consisted of four ‘cut or gone to seed’ works, two of which were traded with Gauguin; Sunflowers (F375 / JH1329 and Sunflowers (F376 / JH1331. 

Sunflowers F376 and F375

 

The other two are Sunflowers Gone to Seed F377 / JH1328, and Four Sunflowers Gone to Seed F452 / JH1330.

Of course, Van Gogh’s more “well-known” series is the 7 Sunflowers in Vases which he created while living in Arles; these paintings are now dispersed throughout the world, with the first composition of three sunflowers, being held in an undisclosed location, owned by an unidentified private collector.

This version, which was part of the 1901 Exposition d’Oeuvres de Vincent van Gogh in Paris, was painted in August 1888, cataloged as F453 / JH1559, and was last exhibited in 1948 at the Cleveland Museum of Art. In 1996, the work was offered to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles which currently houses “Irises”, although the transaction didn’t pan out. It was sold that year, but to whom remains a mystery, at least for the majority of us!

Mushanokoji Saneatsu and Koyata Yamamoto with Vincent van Goghs Sunflowers 02The second version was sadly lost forever after the US bombing of Japan during WWII. Koyata Yamamoto, a wealthy cotton textile owner and founder of the Yamamoto Sholen Corporation, purchased Vase with Five Sunflowers in 1920 and had it shipped from France to Japan. The stunning sunflowers on a royal blue background was exhibited twice afore the Japanese public; March 1921 in Tokyo, and November 1924 in Osaka. The painting was destroyed after Yamamoto’s house burned down following US air raids on August 6, 1945.

The third version was sold by Berlin Gallery owner Paul Cassirer in 1905 to Hugo von Tschudi, Art Historian and director of the Nationalgalerie in Berlin. In 1912, after Tschudi’s passing, the painting was bequeathed to the Neue Pinakothek in Munich where it has remained. 

During WWII, as Allied forces were bombing major cities throughout Germany there was obvious concern that paintings from Neue Pinakothek would suffer a similar fate to that of the second version. So while the Nazis were plundering the most important artworks in history for the planned Führermuseum in Linz, museums and galleries too were evacuating some of their works for safekeeping. Sunflowers Munich was temporarily housed at Neuschwanstein Castle.  


Version Four – Still Life: Vase with Fourteen Sunflowers. F454 / JH1562.

The sunflowers are progressing; there’s a new bouquet of 14 flowers on a green-yellow background, so it’s exactly the same effect but in larger format, no. 30 canvas. – Vincent.

Sunflowers (F455) - Philadelphia Museum of Art

Sunflowers (F455) – Philadelphia Museum of Art

Up until 1924 this version had remained in the Van Gogh family; That was until the Leicester Galleries in London held a retrospective of the Van Gogh Family Collection. The director of the National Gallery in London, Charles Aitken, asked to purchase Vincent’s Chair which was for sale at 8,000 guilders, and The Postman for 10,000 guilders, Johanna agreed to the sale while offering the gallery the chance to exhibit three other works owned by the family… Including Sunflowers.  

Samuel Courtauld IV, Chairman of The Courtauld Trustees, who were essentially footing the bill, asked Johanna to exchange The Postman for Sunflowers to which she responded: “The Sunflowers are not for sale, never; they belong in our family, like Vincent’s bedroom and his house at Aries,” In fact, this version had originally sat above Theo and Jo’s fireplace in Paris. 

Johanna eventually relented to the sale, stating that no picture would represent Vincent in the famous gallery in a more worthy manner than Sunflowers and that he would have liked it to be there – – ‘It is a sacrifice for the sake of Vincent’s glory‘. She received a check for 23,000 guilders on February 6th: 15,000 guilders for Sunflowers and 8,000 guilders for “Vincent’s Chair”. 

Version Five – Sunflowers (F455), is one of three repetitions and was bequeathed to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1963. F455 is a repetition of the 3rd version (Munich), while the other two repetitions, Sunflowers Japan (F457) and Sunflowers Amsterdam (F458) are repetitions of the 4th version (London).

Version Six – Still Life: Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers (F458), the only version to have remained in the family, and is a copy of the London version.  

Provenance:

  • Vincent
  • Theo
  • Johanna
  • Vincent Willem (The Engineer)
  • Van Gogh Foundation

Thinking like this, but very far off, the desire comes over me to remake myself and try to have myself forgiven for the fact that my paintings are, however, almost a cry of anguish while symbolizing gratitude in the rustic sunflower.


The seventh version (F457) was purchased by Yasuo Goto, then president of the Yasuda Fire & Marine Insurance Co. (now Sompo Holdings). Yasuo paid a record £24.75 million ($39.9m) for the Still Life at Christie’s London in 1987.

Despite its record-setting price, this version is shrouded in controversy. The painting has long been regarded as a forgery, with a provenance of Claude-Emile and Amedée Schuffenecker, known forgers in their day. Claude-Emile Schuffenecker is said to be the original owner, having purchased the painting from Père Tanguy’s shop in 1894, along with Daubigny’s Garden (F777).

Schuffenecker had owned several other Van Gogh paintings, including The Ravine (F661/JH1871) Wheatfield with Sheaves and Mower (F559 JH1479), Bushes (F579/JH1692), Olive Trees: Yellow Sky with Sun (F710), Wheatfield with Cypreses (F717/JH1759) The Restaurant de la Sirène in Asnières (F313/JH1251), The Starry Night, to name a few, so he certainly had the opportunity, and ability to examine and copy Vincent’s work. We know for certain that he duplicated Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear. 

LExposition de Paris 1900 Worlds FairOne year before the 1901 Exposition d’oeuvres de Vincent van Gogh at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery in Paris, Johanna had loaned several of Vincent’s paintings, including Sunflowers, to French poet and art critic Julien Leclercq who held a small exhibition at his studio in the artistic Montparnasse district during the L’Exposition de Paris (World’s Fair).

Some of these works were in less-than-perfect condition when they arrived, so Leclercq called upon his good friend Emile Schuffenecker to perform the restoration of Sunflowers while making several corrections to Daubigny’s garden (F 776 JH 2104) by painting out the cat, filling in the edges, and adding a strip to the top. 

Herein births the theory that during Schuffenecker’s time, whilst restoring Sunflowers, he produced the Yasuda painting which was then presented as an authentic Van Gogh painting at the 1901 Bernheim-Jeune Gallery Exhibition. One aspect to highlight is that the Yasuda Sunflowers also has a strip added to the top which coincidently appears to match the same canvas weave as the extension Schuffenecker added to Gauguin’s painting Human Miseries

Those who questioned the legitimacy of the Yasuda Sunflowers included Antonio de Robertis, Paris art dealer Alain Tarica, who described the work as “clumsy,” Swiss-German journalist Hanspeter Born, and Benoit Landais, a Van Gogh Specialist who believed Schuffenecker purchased the Philadelphia version from Tanguy’s shop and thus copied the painting, resulting in the seventh version.

The fact of the matter is, that despite Van Gogh mentioning Sunflowers twenty-seven times in his letters, with no mention of this version. Nor is it listed in Andries Bonger’s catalog of Vincent’s work which comprises of only four large-format Sunflowers, and is the only large format Sunflowers that is unsigned… we will never know for sure.

In 2001, the Van Gogh Museum refuted the neigh sayers by publishing an article regarding the Yasuda Sunflowers and in their conclusion stated: “In short, Van Gogh truly wrestled with this picture, and ironically it is the results of this struggle that have given the critics reason to regard the work as a forgery“. 

Between September 1998 and June 1999, the VGM was closed to make way for the Kurokawa Wing, an expansive and expensive exhibition wing paid for by the owners of the Yasuda Sunflowers, who also helped foot the bill for the new transparent 8,000+ sq ft entrance hall, which opened in 2015.

Moving swiftly along to 2022/23. The heirs of Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, a prominent Berlin banker, who was forced to relinquish the painting in 1934 as a Jew in Germany, are seeking the recovery of Sunflowers as well as $750 million in punitive damages.

Poor Vincent would be turning in his grave.

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