Sunflower painting by Vincent van Gogh

‘Sunflowers’, Vincent van Gogh, January 1889

One of the world’s most famous paintings Sunflowers (1889) has been carefully investigated, explored and restored for Van Gogh and the Sunflowers: A Masterpiece Examined at the Van Gogh Museum.

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As one of five sunflower paintings by Van Gogh, it is an iconic image of nineteenth century art and an important marker in still life painting. Yet, this latest exhibition transforms our view of the work by framing the masterpiece within its wide ranging and complex history.

Display of Van Gogh sunflower paintings

Installation image of ‘Van Gogh and the Sunflowers’ at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. Photo by Jan-Kees Steenman

On display are Van Gogh’s other flower paintings (not all sunflowers), the afterlife of the painting, its far-reaching influence, but also details of its recent conservation work. Most striking are the reconstructions by Charlotte Caspers, smaller canvases which copy views of the painting, using the same materials. These zoomed in views of the dying flower heads and of Van Gogh’s signature reveal the painting’s original colours, made up of brighter reds, pale lilacs and vivid chrome yellow. Through Casper’s work alongside the museum’s conservation team we are transported back to 1889 and the work’s conception. We are also shown x-ray images of the Sunflowers, revealing an added strip of canvas at the top of the painting, which Van Gogh used to correct the placement of the vase.

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Artist at work in the studio

Artist Charlotte Caspers painted reconstructions based on the results of research into the original colours of Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ in the Van Gogh Museum, 2019

Sketches of sunflowers in a sketch book

Vincent van Gogh, Sketches of vases with sunflowers, in sketchbook from Paris and Auvers-sur-Oise, 1890, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation). Photo by Petra and Erik Hesmerg

 

Standing in front of the painting, you are struck by the subject. Van Gogh’s obsession with the flowers evident in his precision and delicacy, each of his decisive strokes visible in the thickly painted surface. The sunflowers, which were first drawn by the artist in 1886 in the wilds around Arles, have become part of his signature, as he stated in a letter to Paul Gauguin in 1889: ‘I indeed … have taken the sunflower’. His affinity with the flower is portrayed in the masterpiece through the subtle use of varying shades of yellow and ochre, and by the way he captures the plant’s lifecycle as we see heads simultaneously opening in bloom and dying.

Rosie Ellison-Balaam

‘Van Gogh and the Sunflowers: A Masterpiece Examined’ runs until 1 September 2019 at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. For more information visit: vangoghmuseum.nl