In late 1887, a struggling artist named Vincent van Gogh hung dozens of paintings on the walls of the Grand Bouillon-Restaurant du Chalet in Paris. Above the long tables where low-income Parisians went to eat from a simple, set menu, works by Van Gogh, as well as those of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Emile Bernard, and other avant-garde artists decorated the establishment. The makeshift hanging was short-lived and received little fanfare. (According to Bernard, Van Gogh quarreled with the owner and eventually loaded the paintings onto a hand cart and took off.)
The exhibition had made a mark on one painter, at least. When Paul Gauguin came to look at the work, his eye was drawn to a few of Van Gogh’s oil studies—in particular, his close-up still lifes of sunflower heads, their wide seed-cores velvety-looking in texture, their crowns of wilted petals like dancing flames. He requested two of the paintings, and Van Gogh traded them for a single work by his Symbolist colleague.
Nienke Bakker, curator of a new exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum dedicated to the artist’s famous sunflowers, believes that Gauguin’s interest in the younger artist’s first foray into this subject almost certainly reinforced Van Gogh’s sustained focus on the flower. He would come to produce a total of 11 sunflower still lifes, some of them intended to impress Gauguin and adorn his bedroom in the Yellow House in Arles, where the artists spent two months together in the fall of 1888. (Indeed, Gauguin later requested one of the works from the Yellow House: Van Gogh’s vibrant yellow-on-yellow pot of sunflowers, bursting out of a vase, live and radiant.)
Yet it was the particular features and character of the sunflower that attracted Van Gogh to it. “It’s the vibrant color that he liked, but it’s also the form,” Bakker said. “The sunflower is a very strong and sturdy plant. It’s not elegant and refined. He called it the ‘rustic sunflower.’ It has the roughness and unpolishedness of the real countryside, and that’s what he felt strongly about.”
When a particularly dark period befell the famously unstable artist, Van Gogh spent time in an asylum. During his stay in the hospital, he longed for the countryside of his upbringing in the rural Netherlands. As Bakker notes in the exhibition catalogue, Van Gogh revealed to his brother Theo that during his illness he had seen in his mind the house and garden in Zundert. Earlier on, he had painted this site from memory, in a picture that shows his mother and sister immersed in a flower-filled garden, which included dahlias and sunflowers.
He later imagined pairing his portrait of Madame Roulin, called La Berceuse (1888–89), with two sunflower works. The painting, a portrait of a friend’s wife, shows the woman seated serenely against a richly patterned backdrop of flowers. Van Gogh imagined Madame Roulin flanked by two sunflower paintings to form a triptych—the Virgin Mary framed by vibrant bouquets.
The sunflower, which Van Gogh once saw as decorative, had become something almost sacred, a symbol that represented light itself, an ideal of an honest life lived in nature. The Symbolist poet and critic Gabriel-Albert Aurier claimed that Van Gogh’s sunflowers contained a powerful idea, writing in the Mercure de France of the artist’s “obsessional passion for the solar disc, which he loves to make shine in the blaze of his skies, and, at the same time, for that other sun, that vegetable star, the magnificent sunflower, which he paints over and over, without wearying, like a monomaniac.” Van Gogh responded that they did indeed represent an idea: “gratitude.”
His paintings, he wrote to his sister in 1890, were “almost a cry of anguish while symbolizing gratitude in the rustic sunflower,” an image that brought him comfort and familiarity, and which, one can imagine, had a certain vital glow and form that could raise his spirits in troubled times.
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