Van Gogh’s Sunflowers are some of his most famous and recognizable works, but many people don’t realize they belong to a sizable series of paintings. From the years 1887 to 1889, Dutch post-impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) created paintings featuring sunflowers after encountering the flower on Japanese woodblock prints. Van Gogh first painted the flower in Paris, then continued developing the paintings as a series in 1888 when he moved to Arles.
1. Vincent van Gogh: The Painter of Sunflowers
For Van Gogh, sunflowers represented gratitude and a deep desire to have a hopeful and optimistic identity as a painter. Vincent van Gogh wanted to be known as the painter of sunflowers, a distinction that his legacy and body of work have attained today. The Painter of Sunflowers (1888) was however not painted by Vincent van Gogh but by his roommate and fellow artist Paul Gaugin. This painting shows Van Gogh creating a painting of sunflowers and encapsulates what he wanted to be known for. The Dutch post-impressionist painter lived with Gaugin in a rented house known as the Yellow House in Arles, France for a period of time in 1888 before an intense altercation in December of that year in which Van Gogh severed his own ear. This event prompted Gaugin to move out and return to Paris.
2. Two Cut Sunflowers: Paris, 1887
Though much of Van Gogh’s love affair with sunflowers occurred in Arles, he first started painting the blooms in Paris in 1887. His initial approach to the flower was different from what he is now known for, as he depicted them cut and withering as opposed to blooming in a vase. Two Cut Sunflowers (1887) is one of Van Gogh’s first paintings featuring sunflowers, from a series of four still life paintings created that year. Paul Gaugin took a liking to this particular painting and kept it above the bed in his Paris apartment for many years.
3. Sunflowers Gone to Seed: Paris, 1887
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Sunflowers Gone to Seed (1887) was yet another of Van Gogh’s Paris sunflower paintings, cut and trimmed as the flowers in the other works from this time were. This piece of the Sunflowers series was left by Vincent at the Paris apartment of his brother Theo Van Gogh between mid-August and mid-September 1887. This work is particularly striking in its use of a green background and the withered state of the sunflowers in the painting.
4. Four Sunflowers Gone to Seed: Paris, 1887
Often described as an unusual still life, Four Sunflowers Gone to Seed (1887) is one more of Van Gogh’s Paris sunflower portraits. The flowers in this one, again cut, take up much of the canvas and are life-sized. As opposed to the green background in Sunflowers Gone to Seed (1887), the backdrop of this painting is multicolored without providing distraction from the main subject. This work is remarkable in that the flowers exist in an almost liminal space, allowing them to take focus in a simple environment.
5. Three Sunflowers in a Vase: Arles, 1888
The first of Van Gogh’s iconic paintings created in Arles is Three Sunflowers in a Vase (1888). It shows a stunning and vibrant turn from the cut and withered blooms he depicted in Paris. Painted in the post-impressionist style, this work depicts three bright yellow sunflowers in a green vase against a turquoise background. While the backdrops in his Paris paintings were free of distraction, the teal wall behind the flowers provides great contrast and further brightens the atmosphere of the painting.
6. Six Sunflowers: Arles, 1888
The second iteration of sunflowers in a vase Van Gogh painted was Six Sunflowers (1888). This painting also has high color contrast but for different reasons than the bright and sunny Three Sunflowers in a Vase (1888). In this work, the sunflowers are still vibrant, but also jagged and falling from the vase. The deep blue background provides a more intense contrast to the flowers, making them pop at the center of the work. This painting was sadly destroyed in 1945 in Ashiya, Japan where it resided in a private collection when a US World War II Air Raid caused a fire.
7. Vase with Twelve Sunflowers: Arles, 1888
This third version of Van Gogh’s Arles sunflowers, simply titled Sunflowers (1888), was originally painted to be hung in his shared studio with Paul Gaugin. With a similar color palette to the first version, this painting shows the sunflowers in a greater number but in a less vibrant state. This is an important edition of Van Gogh’s sunflowers because it was one of the canvases he selected to be paired with his painting La Berceuse (1889) to form a triptych.
In the winter of 1889 in Arles, Van Gogh created copies of some of his favorite sunflower paintings, including the third version titled Sunflowers (1888). Though his duplicates are similar to their original counterparts, he painted these new works from memory so there are slight idiosyncrasies and differences from the first version.
9. Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers: Arles, 1888
This fourth version of Sunflowers (1888) is one of the most famous versions of these Van Gogh paintings. It is renowned both for being a magnificent work favored by the artist and for the act of protest in 2022 when Just Stop Oil climate activists threw tomato soup over it while it was hanging in the National Gallery in London. Van Gogh made two copies of this painting in the winter of 1889, making it one of the more recognizable paintings of the Arles sunflowers. This fourth version is distinctive due to the lack of contrast in its color palette, with Van Gogh having mainly used shades of yellow with hints of blue and green to create a beautiful depiction of his favorite flower. The painting is the other version of Sunflowers Van Gogh selected to be part of the Berceuse triptych.
Van Gogh regularly considered how the Sunflowers would pair with his larger body of paintings, and one idea he had for display was the Berceuse triptych. La Berceuse (Woman Rocking a Cradle; Augustine-Alix Pellicot Roulin) (1889) is another of Van Gogh’s paintings for which he created multiple copies. The work depicts Augustine Roulin, wife of Van Gogh’s friend Joseph Roulin, holding the rope attached to a cradle that is out of the frame. This work features flowers in the wallpaper background, but these are not sunflowers.
The Berceuse triptych is an arrangement Van Gogh created in 1889 featuring La Berceuse (1889) with the third and fourth versions of Sunflowers (1888) painted in Arles. In a letter to his brother Theo, Van Gogh described the triptych saying the sunflowers would form torches or candelabra beside the center painting. He suggested that all the versions of La Berceuse and Sunflowers could be paired together this way but selected these specific paintings to go together as a set known as The Berceuse Triptych (1888-1889).
10. Allotment with Sunflower: Paris, 1887
Though the cut sunflowers from Paris and sunflowers in vases from Arles make up the Sunflowers series properly, the flower held significant importance for Van Gogh and made appearances in peripheral works. Allotment with Sunflower (1887) is a still-life depicting a tall sunflower on the hill of Montmartre in Paris. Created before the main sunflower paintings, this work shows the sunflower growing from the ground instead of being cut, gone to seed, or placed in a vase. For Van Gogh, these flowers represented gratitude, vitality, and the cycle of life, and as such he painted them at their various life stages over the years.
11. Van Gogh’s Shed with Sunflowers: Paris, 1887
Shed with Sunflowers (1887) is yet another one of Van Gogh’s sunflower-related still-life paintings from Montmartre. Rather than centering the sunflowers in this one, he chose a wider scene view in showing the site where his beloved blooms were growing. Though Van Gogh would become known as the painter of sunflowers and his work related to the flower from Arles would become very famous, his journey with depicting the flower all started with an allotment garden on a hill in the summer of 1887.