Text by Geoffrey Smith
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Sunflowers is probably the most popular (and therefore the most famous) painting housed in the National Gallery — one of the most instantly recognisable images in Western art, made by the world’s favourite painter. The outline of Vincent’s life is well known and the tragic irony of the loneliness and penury endured by him, when contrasted with the fact that his posthumous fame contributed to a record auction price (for another version of this image) of nearly £25 million in 1987, adds an unavoidable piquancy to one’s response to the picture. In February 1888 van Gogh left Paris and travelled to Provence where he rented a diminutive house in Arles. Vincent wanted this modest dwelling to become the embryonic focus for a community of artists and to this end he had written repeatedly to his friends Émile Bernard and Paul Gauguin asking them to leave Brittany and join him in the south. Gauguin eventually agreed and it was following this news that Vincent painted a series of four sunflower canvases (he later made more copies) as decorations for the house. He selected and signed two of them and it was these two which adorned Gauguin’s bedroom when he arrived. The National Gallery’s version is one of these signed works, the other now hangs in Munich. Gauguin was very taken with them and responded by producing a portrait of van Gogh engaged in painting one of the later copies —Vincent is shown gazing intently at a somewhat withered vase of flowers.
In retrospect, this explosive and short-lived cohabitation was probably one of the worst ideas in the history of art. One can only wonder at the sort of atmosphere which was generated within the tiny ‘Yellow House’ by two such temperaments — one, manically passionate, already showing signs of mental instability, or at best acute depression, the other equally obsessive, famously egotistical and much more self assured. After two months Gauguin announced that he wished to leave Arles. This news precipitated the celebrated incident of self mutilation triggering van Gogh’s descent into terminal mental illness.
But the sunflowers represent a more hopeful period when he was looking forward to the arrival of his friend, and when the prospect of a community of artists based in Arles was still a possibility. Yellow was a colour he equated with happiness and it is also the colour of the south — of the dazzling sun. Indeed, in the only favourable article to appear during his lifetime, in the year of his death, the critic and poet Albert Aurier asks:
‘And how could we explain that obsessive passion for the solar disk that he loves to make shine forth from his emblazoned skies, and, at the same time, for that other sun, that vegetable-star, the sumptuous sunflower, which he repeats tirelessly, monomaniacally, if we refuse to accept his persistent preoccupation with some vague and glorious heliomythic allegory?’
Image: Courtesy of the National Gallery, London
1888 Paul Gauguin: Old Women of Arles, Chicago, Art Institute
1889 Camille Pissarro: Apple Picking at Eragny-sur-Epte, Dallas, Museum of Art
1889 Philip Wilson Steer: Knucklebones, Ipswich Borough Council Museums