The Seven Sunflowers

Ahead of Botticelli to Van Gogh: Masterpieces from the National Gallery, London, Curator Sally Foster explores Vincent van Gogh’s obsession with sunflowers.

Vincent van Gogh painted seven sunflower pictures in Arles, France, between 1888 and 1889: four were painted in one week of August 1888, one in late November — early December 1888 and two in January 1889. Together, the seven Sunflowers produced by Van Gogh make up one of the most famous series of works in art history.

“I’m painting with the gusto of a Marseillais eating bouillabaisse, which won’t surprise you when it’s a question of painting large SUNFLOWERS.” — Vincent van Gogh

1. Sunflowers, August 1888, private collection
The first in the series features a green vase with three sunflowers set against a turquoise background.

2. Sunflowers, August 1888, destroyed in 1945 in Ashiya, Japan
Similar to the first it has three sunflowers in a vase, but the background is dark blue and three more sunflowers have been painted lying on the table.

3. Sunflowers, August 1888 (signed), Neue Pinakothek, Munich
The third shows 14 sunflowers against a background of a light turquoise, with the vase and the table painted in yellow.

Vincent Van Gogh, ‘Sunflowers’, August 1888 (signed), Neue Pinakothek, Munich. Photo by Art Images via Getty Images

4. Sunflowers, August 1888 (signed), National Gallery, London
Towards the end of the summer, Van Gogh painted the fourth Sunflowers. While the previous three works contrasted yellows and blues, in this version he painted 15 sunflowers on a yellow background. By the artist’s own admission the third and fourth versions were the most important of the series. Signing them ‘Vincent’, these two paintings were hung in the guest bedroom of his Van Gogh’s ‘yellow house’ in Arles for friend and fellow artist Paul Gauguin. The ‘yellow on yellow’ version — which will be on display as part of the Botticelli to Van Gogh: Masterpieces from the National Gallery, London exhibition — received great praise from Gauguin, who described it as “a perfect page of an essential ‘Vincent’ style”.

Vincent van Gogh. ‘Sunflowers.’ 1888. © National Gallery, London

5. Sunflowers, November — December 1888, Sompo Museum, Tokyo
Van Gogh often made copies of works he regarded as successful and important. He did this so that he could keep the original for himself but give a copy to his sitters, family and friends, and exhibit with a view to sell. Between late November and early December 1888, Van Gogh painted his fifth version and the first copy of Sunflowers, a thick impasto painting after the previous version.

Vincent van Gogh, ‘Sunflowers’, November — December 1888, Sompo Museum, Tokyo, photo by: Photo12/Universal Images, Group via Getty Images

6. Sunflowers, January 1889, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia
An ‘absolutely equal and identical’ copy of the third version.

Vincent van Gogh, ‘Sunflowers’, January 1889, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia. © Philadelphia Museum of Art

7. Sunflowers, January 1889, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
The final in the series, and an ‘absolutely equal and identical’ copy of the fourth version.

Vincent van Gogh, ‘Sunflowers’, January 1889, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. © Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Vincent van Gogh Foundation

Sally Foster is Curator of International Prints, Drawings and Illustrated Books at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, and Co-ordinating Curator of Botticelli to Van Gogh: Masterpieces from the National Gallery, London, opening 5 March 2021 at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

This interview was first published in the Summer 2020/21 edition of Artonview. Artonview is the National Gallery’s Member’s magazine. Become a member nga.gov.au/members

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