The Sunflowers is one of the most popular paintings in the National Gallery. It is the painting that is most often reproduced on cards, posters, mugs, tea-towels and stationery. It was also the picture that Van Gogh was most proud of.
Van Gogh, Sunflowers, 1888
It was painted during a rare period of excited optimism, while Van Gogh awaited the arrival of his hero, the avant-garde painter Paul Gauguin. The lonely and passionate Vincent had moved to Arles, in the South of France, where he dreamed of setting up a community of artists with Gauguin as its mentor. The 'Sunflowers' was intended to impress Gauguin and was a gesture of friendship. The alliance was to end in disaster. Why sunflowers?
Sunflowers had a special significance for Van Gogh. He made 11 paintings of them. Yellow, for him, was an emblem of happiness – in Dutch literature, the sunflower was a symbol of devotion and loyalty. In their various stages of decay, these flowers also remind us of the cycle of life and death.
Renoir, The Skiff (La Yole), 1875
When Van Gogh moved to Paris in 1886, he was exposed to the bold palettes of the Impressionists, such as Renoir, with their use of bright and opposing colours. The influence of the Impressionists transformed Van Gogh's own use of colour. He began to experiment with bright, unmixed colours. He was dismissive of the movement as a whole, however, accusing it of being purely decorative. Van Gogh was more interested in some of the Post-Impressionists who, like himself, were more concerned with investing the objects in their paintings with significance and symbolism. Gauguin: friend or foe?
In February 1888 Van Gogh moved to Arles in the South of France, but suffered terribly from isolation and loneliness. His dream was to set up an artists' colony based in the yellow house he had rented. That spring he invited Paul Gauguin to join him. He embarked on a prolific summer of painting, intending to...