What makes these paintings famous?
Sunflowers is not just one painting, but in fact two entire series of multiple paintings of sunflowers. Most of the time, when someone refers to Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’, they’re talking about the series he created while in Arles, consisting of four initial versions and three repetitions on the same idea.
Lesser known are the ‘Paris Sunflowers’, which he created while living with his brother in Paris between 1886 and 1888. Less triumphant and not in full bloom, these sunflowers are nonetheless pretty spectacular to see, and can be found at museums including The Met in New York, the Kröller-Müller Museum, and (of course) the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
What’s the background story?
Van Gogh himself seems to have been absolutely delighted by sunflowers, reflected both in the sheer amount of sunflower-based paintings he created as well as his descriptions in the letters he wrote to his brother and friends.
In 1888, Van Gogh wrote: “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.” Basically, he loved painting sunflowers, and everyone knew it. In the same letter, he would explain how it was his dream to work in a studio alongside his friend Paul Gauguin, and that he planned to create decorations for the walls consisting of huge sunflower paintings.
It can be guessed that Gauguin himself was likely a fan of sunflowers too – particularly the ones that Van Gogh painted. In 1889, Gauguin ‘claimed’ one of the sunflower paintings in exchange for some of his own work which he left to Van Gogh, to Vincent’s great dismay:
“I am definitely keeping my sunflowers in question. He has two of them already, let that hold him. And if he is not satisfied with the exchange he has made with me, he can take back his little Martinique canvas, and his self-portrait he sent to me from Brittany, at the same time giving me back both my portrait and the two sunflower canvases which he has taken to Paris. So if he ever broaches this subject again, I’ve told you just how matters stand.”
Where are Van Gogh’s Sunflowers?
You can find Van Gogh’s famous sunflower paintings at locations around the world: The Met in New York, The Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the Museum of Fine Arts in Bern, the National Gallery in London, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Sompo Japan Museum of Art in Tokyo, and the Neue Pinakothek in Munich.