Van Gogh’s Secret Sunny Side

In his short lifetime, Van Gogh painted hundreds of pictures of sunflowers. His fondness for the flower began in Paris in 1887 when he noticed how the bold yellow bloom brightened up the farmland of Montmartre. At the end of the summer, he paid tribute to the flowers by painting the dried out seed heads left behind. Then months later when he moved to Arles in the south of France, he discovered fields of the sunny flowers in full bloom and set about creating a new series. 

The popular masterpiece that has been on display in the National Gallery since 1924 is perhaps the Sunflower picture which meant most to Van Gogh.

Image credit: Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890), Sunflowers, 1888, Oil on canvas, 92.1x73cm, Bought, Courtald Fund, 1924 © National Gallery, London

It was created in the summer of 1888 when the Dutch painter was awaiting the arrival of his friend Paul Gauguin to his Arles home, which he called the Yellow House. Writing to his brother Theo, Van Gogh explained how he imagined his friend waking to ‘nothing but large sunflowers’ and planned to paint a dozen sunflower pictures, all intended to hang on the walls of Gauguin’s bedroom. The National Gallery’s painting was the best of the first batch of four and it seems Van Gogh promised to gift this particular painting to Gauguin following his stay.

However Gauguin’s visit didn’t go quite to plan as it coincided with the beginning of Van Gogh’s nervous breakdown and the ear-cutting incident. The story goes that when the artist tried to attack his friend, Gauguin left in a hurry, leaving the painting behind. However, a few months later he wrote asking for it. By this time, Van Gogh had grown fond of the picture and refused to part with it. Instead, he set about creating a replica to satisfy Gauguin. It being January, there were no real sunflowers in sight so the artist resorted to using an artistic tool familiar to us all – tracing paper!


Image credit: Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890), Sunflowers, 1889-01 Arles, Oil on canvas, 95 x 73 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation), s31V/1962, F458, © Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

The following year, Van Gogh died from a gunshot wound, which is widely believed to have been self-inflicted. His Sunflower series was split up, sold to various museums around the world and displayed separately. The replica created for Gauguin eventually found its way to Amsterdam’s Van Gogh museum, who have kindly loaned the painting to the National Gallery so it can hang side-by-side with the original masterpiece in London for a limited time. 

Don’t miss your chance to see the works reunited for the first time in 65 years – it’ll be the most high-brow game of spot-the-difference you ever play! 

Sunflowers, National Gallery, London until 27 April 2014. Admission is free.

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