What’s special about these sunflowers is that they caught people’s imagination. They’re simple images but the more you look at them the more there is to see.
Vincent, let’s call him “V”. He only started his artistic career in his late twenties and at that time it was considered to be an extremely late start. He moved to Paris to live with his younger brother Theo (an art dealer) in 1886.
During that time the art scene was all about the impressionist movement (A style of painting characterized by small, visible brushstrokes that offer the bare impression of form, unblended color, and an emphasis on the accurate depiction of natural light.)
That kind of style required YEARS and YEARS of studies and practice and because V literally just started he didn’t find success in the city which resulted in him hating everything about Paris and its people.
Because of that, Theo found him really unbearable to live with, so he sat V down and convinced him to move somewhere quieter where he can relax. He didn’t need a lot of convincing and ended up moving to the south of France specifically a town called Al
V was obsessed with creating his own post-impressionist artist’s colony – a place where artists could live and work, and inspire each other – and he saw this as a great opportunity to do so. Another thing he was obsessed with (allegedly) was Paul Gauguin (who is an artist he befriended while they were both living in Paris) and he REALLY wanted him to join him in Al.
V saw him as a light-minded artist but was also convinced that Paul only saw success in Paris and didn’t see the infinite possibilities of poverty. He knew he has to be persistent in order to get Gauguin to join him.
He rented a house called the “Yellow house” and it had a spare bedroom to which he wanted to call Gauguin’s room. He thought it would be cheaper and more stimulating to live with another artist so V invited him to come to visit.
Gauguin resisted the idea and had a hunch that V was most definitely going to be a horrible roommate. There were a few letters passing between the two about the topic and how things would work out. Obviously, V was desperate.
In his Mind, he NEEDED Gauguin to start his studio in the south. Theo stepped in, he literally bribed Gauguin to go to Al (basically started paying him to be his companion “AKA baby sitter) he bought one painting a month from him for 250 francs.
Gaugin now has good reasons to go to Al so he went. V was so happy (obviously didn’t know what Theo did) but happy nonetheless to the point where he started painting a series of sunflower paintings and said he will fill Gauguin’s room with sunflowers.
What’s so special about Gaugin?
That’s because when Vincent made his first still life of sunflowers in Paris Gauguin was impressed by them.
V was very honored to hear that because had recently got to know Gauguin and looked up to him. So when Gauguin appreciated his work it confirmed his feeling that he was on the right track and just kept doing the same thing.
Gauguin called the paintings ‘completely Vincent’
This brings the question:
Why sunflowers to begin with?
V liked worn-out subjects whether this means cottages instead of big houses, or older women instead of younger ones, or poverty instead of wealth, or even worn-out flowers instead of blossoming ones.
His fellow painters thought that sunflowers were somewhat coarse and unrefined. But this is exactly what Vincent liked, and he specifically enjoyed painting flowers that had gone to seed.
There’s also this theory that sunflowers symbolized devotion and loyalty so it had this symbolic nature already but he morphed it into something that became an extension of himself
He was consumed with the color yellow he said “Sunshine a light which for the wonder of a better word I can only call yellow, pale salty yellow, pale lemon gold, how beautiful yellow is”
The sun, the Provence, and the yellow color all came together in his mind and were perfectly represented by this huge, dramatic flower. It was also an interesting flower for him because of the different cycles they have. They would turn towards where the sun rises in the east so fields of sunflowers all face the same direction and then when they get older they turn brown, dry up and go to seed.
So if you look at one of his sunflower paintings you’ll see that the flowers are at different stages.
Vincent painted 5 different versions of Sunflowers in a vase with different backgrounds. He also painted another two versions. One is in private hands (no one really knows who has it), and the other one was unfortunately lost during World War II.
Going back to Gauguin…
He moved to Al in 1888 and things were going great. They were both having the time of their lives, enjoying painting all the different landscapes and even painted portraits of each other, visited museums, and basically became besties.
They were both awkward and really different from each other but they both found that working closely together side by side was very stimulating and to talk about art in bars and cafes discussing artists they liked and disliked.
It didn’t last long though…
A couple of weeks in, tensions started to rise, they fought and Gauguin was fed up so he told Vincent that he’s leaving which really upset V and he “allegedly” charged at him with a knife, Gauguin ran back to Paris as a result.
When Gauguin left, V had a mental breakdown. He went up to his bedroom, pulled out a razor, and cut off his ear. He stopped the bleeding and put on his hat and walked across the town square to a street he called “the street of the kind girls” where the brothels were
He gave his cut-off ear to one of the girls at the brothel which cause a HUGE scandal. Everyone knew him as the artist in Al but then he became the mad artist. Which basically ended his life in Al but even with this tragic end. He managed a breakthrough in his career and claim the sunflowers as his own.
After he died in 1890 (37 yrs old), friends and family brought sunflowers with them to his funeral.
Sunflowers became synonymous with Vincent, just as he had hoped.
Check out some other moments
if you enjoyed “Sunflowers” check out my previous episode “Comedian” where we talk about how the crazy idea of a banana on a wall made one artist thousands of dollars