Vincent van Gogh's Sunflowers, The Story of Becoming

Artwork(s) In Focus, Exhibition Announcements, Art History

June 30, 2019

In 1889, one of the most celebrated masters of modernism Vincent van Gogh painted the last canvas from the Sunflowers series. What appears to be just a simple still life is indeed a rather complex artwork which narrates much about the later phase of artist’s development, as well as his condition just one year before his life came to an end. At the same time, this simple, yet symbolically powerful painting reflects the power of friendship and support shared with Paul Gauguin (with whom Van Gogh shared the room while painting Sunflowers), as well as his omnipresent feeling of solitude and alienation.

For several years, the Van Gogh museum and a couple of other institutions have been running a research-based project regarding this iconic masterpiece. Finally, this important institution decided to organize an extensive exhibition simply titled Van Gogh and the Sunflowers in order to reveal detailed exploration of the painting in the historical, formal and technical sense, and to underline its iconic status.

Van Gogh and the Sunflowers

The Research Of Van Gogh Sunflowers

The exhibition chronologically examines the circumstances which led Vincent van Gogh to produced this masterpiece and the significance this particular flower had for him. While in Paris, the artist encountered the sunflower as a subject for the first time; however, after he moved to Arles, where vast fields of sunflowers spread all over the countryside, van Gogh naturally became even more triggered by the plant.

The Van Gogh Museum’s version was initially made for Gauguin, who made a portrait of van Gogh as a painter of sunflowers while the two shared the same space for two months in Arles. The decision to present him in such a manner is not that unusual since Van Gogh perceived the Sunflowers paintings among his best works; every person around the artist was dazzled with the work, from Gauguin and Vincent’s brother Theo, to other artists and even critics.

Therefore, this exhibition unravels the extensive technical research of the materials used for this work. Namely, Sunflowers was thoroughly examined by the use of the latest technology, and each layer of the paint applied from the previous restorations was carefully analyzed in order to discover which materials van Gogh used, the condition the artwork is in, etc.

One of the most important conclusions was that the ground and paint layers of the museum’s Sunflowers are good but extremely sensitive to vibration and variations in temperature and humidity. Therefore, the museum recently made a decision to put it on display exclusively with the museum and put a ban on it to travel.

Within the research, the painting was slightly conserved at the beginning of the year. Namely, the varnish layers are dirty and yellowed and have merged with the paint in certain places. During the recent treatment, the layer of wax applied to the varnish layers in the late 1990s was removed, and the discolored retouches from earlier restorations were also examined but were not to be removed due to their location (they are beneath the varnish layer) and so new retouches were performed over the old ones.

Left Vincent van Gogh - Sunflowers Right Sunflowers (backside)
Left: Vincent van Gogh - Sunflowers, 1889. Oil on canvas, 95 cm x 73 cm / Right: Sunflowers (backside), 1889. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

The Related Artworks

The installment features twenty-three paintings practically all from the museum’s collection. Alongside the iconic Sunflowers, on display are the grand master’s painting The Yellow House (1888), Vincent van Gogh Painting Sunflowers (1888) by Paul Gauguin, as well as many of van Gogh’s rarely seen sketches. The exceptions are only two loans included and those are Zinnias in a Maiolica Jug painted by van Gogh in 1888 (owned by a private collector), and the painting by Isaac Israëls, Woman in Profile before Van Gogh’s Sunflowers made in between 1916 and 1920 (owned by the Museum de Fundatie in Zwolle).

The curiosity is that for the first time, the back side of the Sunflowers will be shown so the audience can see the wooden strip with the original nails added by van Gogh himself; it is believed that the artist did this to add more space for the composition after he realized that the uppermost sunflowers were too close to the edge.

The installment will also include 2015 painting Destroyed by Fire (Still Life: Vase with Five Sunflowers) made by the American artist Matthew Day Jackson. This piece was directly inspired by the version of van Gogh’s Sunflowers owned by a Japanese collector. It belongs to the series based on the artist’s interpretation of the iconic artworks lost during the Second World War.

Paul Gauguin - Vincent van Gogh
Paul Gauguin - Vincent van Gogh Painting Sunflowers, 1888. Oil on canvas, 73 cm x 91 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Van Gogh Sunflowers at the Van Gogh Museum

The exhibition will be followed by a new scholarly publication titled Van Gogh’s Sunflowers Illuminated: Art Meets Science, which gathers the results of the research made possible by an international team of scientists, conservators, and art historians, as well as an exhibition bilingual catalog by Nienke Bakker and Ella Hendriks which will present the results of the extensive research, and contextualize the Van Gogh Museum’s Sunflowers accordingly.

Van Gogh and the Sunflowers will be on display at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam until 1 September 2019.

Editors’ Tip: Van Gogh's Sunflowers Illuminated: Art Meets Science (Van Gogh Museum Studies)

Vincent van Gogh's Sunflowers are seen by many as icons of Western European art. Two of these masterpieces – the first version painted in August 1888 (The National Gallery, London) and the painting made after it in January 1889 (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam) – have been the subject of a detailed comparison by an interdisciplinary team of experts. The pictures were examined in unprecedented depth using a broad array of techniques, including state-of-the-art, non-invasive imaging analytical methods, to look closely at and under the paint surface.

Featured image: Exhibition Van Gogh and the Sunflowers Installation views, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. Photo: Jan-Kees Steenman; Artist Charlotte Caspers painted reconstructions of two details, based on the results of research into the original colours of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in the Van Gogh Museum. Images courtesy Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation).

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