Genius of Van Gogh — Master of Impasto: Sunflowers Series, 1888–1889

Sunflowers (August 1888) Munich Version

In August 1888, Vincent van Gogh obsessively painted a series of four paintings of the same subject -sunflowers. Van Gogh was living in Arles, in the south of France in hopes of starting an artists’ colony there. He recently received word that another artist — Paul Gaugin — had agreed to move in with van Gogh. Vincent van Gogh lived in what became known as the Yellow House since may of 1888.

“You know that I think a society of impressionists would be a good thing of the same nature as the Society of the Twelve English Pre-Raphaelites, and I think that it could come into existence. Then I incline to think that the artists would guarantee mutually among themselves a livelihood, each consenting to give a considerable number of pictures to the Society, and that the gains as well as the losses should be taken in common.” -Vincent van Gogh, from a letter to his brother Theo van Gogh, Spring 1888

The Yellow House (1888) by Vincent van Gogh

The house no longer exists, having been severely damaged during World War II and not rebuilt after the war. Sadly, one of the four original sunflower paintings was destroyed in that conflict as well, though not in Arles. This painting, of a vase with six sunflowers painted for Gaugin’s room, was purchased by Japanese entrepreneur Koyata Yamamoto in 1920. The painting was destroyed during the bombing of Ashiya, a suburb of Kobe, in 1945. The priceless, irreplaceable painting by van Gogh was lost in the flames.

Vase with Six Sunflowers (August 1888), formerly in Ashiya Japan — destroyed in 1945

Van Gogh painted two other sunflower paintings in August 1888, one of which is in the National Galley (London) and the other in a private collection. The National Gallery version is arguably the most famous version of the series.

Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers (August 1888) by Vincent van Gogh — National Gallery, London

One can see, in the paintings above and below, van Gogh’s signature impasto style — utilizing thick paint and dynamic brush strokes to give the painting greater three dimensionality and express his creativity.

Vase with Three Sunflowers (August 1888, private collection) by Vincent van Gogh

Paul Gaugin moved in with Vincent van Gogh, though the initial enthusiasm on van Gogh’s part wore off rather quickly. He and Gaugin had different views on painting. Van Gogh favored painting from life while Gaugin preferred using his memory. Paul Gaugin only stayed for a couple of months, eventually leaving due to constant quarrels with van Gogh. Gaugin did paint a picture of van Gogh painting sunflowers while he stayed in the Yellow house.

The Painter of Sunflowers (December 1888) by Paul Gaugin

Gaugin gives us a glimpse of van Gogh painting from his experience living with van Gogh. Though this is an important an imaginative image of van Gogh was not met with initial enthusiasm by van Gogh himself. Though he appears to have a slightly warmer perception later when he wrote his opinion of the painting:

“My face has lit up a lot since, but it was indeed me, extremely tired and charged with electricity as I was then.” -Vincent van Gogh

The painting does reveal the limits of Gaugin’s artistic talent when compared with that of van Gogh. The sunflowers are quite flat and nowhere near as lively as in the various van Gogh paintings. The image appears to be one of visual thinking on the part of Gaugin rather than something the artist would have tried to sell.

By the end of 1888, tensions between van Gogh and Gaugin reached a peak. Gaugin was planning to leave and van Gogh became increasingly emotional. His ideal of an artist’s colony was doomed. After Gaugin stormed out, van Gogh took a razor and mutilated his own ear and suffered a mental breakdown. Gaugin tended towards arrogance and had only joined van Gogh because of pressure from Theo van Gogh. As van Gogh’s reputation gradually rose, Gaugin tried taking credit for inspiring van Gogh. History shows, however, that van Gogh only took Gaugin’s advice regarding painting from memory briefly before returning to what he had been doing.

In January 1889, van Gogh returned to painting sunflowers. These are the repetitions, based on the London and Munich paintings from August 1888.

Sunflowers repetition (1889) -currently in the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Chrome yellow was a new paint in the nineteenth century and van Gogh used it quite liberally in many of his paintings, including nearly all his sunflower paintings. One should also remember that the second half of the nineteenth century was the first time when artists could go to a store and buy tubes of paint. In previous centuries, artists had to make their own colors.

Vincent van Gogh was one of the greatest painters who ever lived. His use of chrome yellow, his depictions of sunflowers, and even his copies of depictions of sunflowers have immortalized his reputation. The year from 1888–1889 was among the most productive in terms of creating masterpieces. His sunflowers rank among his most important contributions to art and shape how we see sunflowers to this day.

“You may know that the peony is Jeannin’s, the hollyhock belongs to Quost, but the sunflower is mine in a way.” -Vincent van Gogh

Bedroom in Arles (October 1888) by Vincent van Gogh

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