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Still Life: Vase with Twelve Sunflowers

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Oil on canvas
92.0 x 72.5 cm.
Arles: January, 1889
F 455, JH 1668

Philadelphia: The Philadelphia Museum of Art


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In August, 1888 Vincent van Gogh began painting a series of works which, as Dr. Jan Hulsker suggests "perhaps more than any other of his paintings, have made him known throughout the world. They are often the only works with which he is identified."1 This series is, of course, the sunflowers.

Van Gogh envisioned his sunflower works as a series and worked diligently on them in anticipation of the arrival in Arles of his friend, Paul Gauguin. In a letter to Emile Bernard written around 21 August 1888 Vincent wrote: "I’m thinking of decorating my studio with half a dozen paintings of Sunflowers. A decoration in which harsh or broken yellows will burst against various blue backgrounds, from the palest Veronese to royal blue, framed with thin laths painted in orange lead. Sorts of effects of stained-glass windows of a Gothic church." (Letter 665).

Vincent eventually planned a dozen sunflower works to be hung in the Yellow House which he and Gauguin would use for a studio. "I’d like to do a decoration for the studio. Nothing but large Sunflowers. Next door to your shop, in the restaurant, as you know, there’s such a beautiful decoration of flowers there; I still remember the big sunflower in the window. Well, if I carry out this plan there’ll be a dozen or so panels. The whole thing will therefore be a symphony in blue and yellow. I work on it all these mornings, from sunrise. Because the flowers wilt quickly and it’s a matter of doing the whole thing in one go." (666). Unfortunately, Vincent's race against the changing seasons was unsuccessful and he was only able to complete four sunflower works in August, 1888.

Without question, the most valuable resource with regards to insights into the development and execution of Van Gogh's works are his letters to his brother, Theo, and others. In his typically detailed and precise manner, Van Gogh describes the origin of the first three works in this series: I have 3 canvases on the go, 1) 3 large flowers in a green vase, light background (no. 15 canvas), [A] 2) 3 flowers, one flower that’s gone to seed and lost its petals and a bud on a royal blue background (no. 25 canvas), [B] 3) twelve flowers and buds in a yellow vase (no. 30 canvas). So the last one is light on light, and will be the best, I hope." [C] (666). A few days later Vincent writes in Letter 668: "I’m now on the fourth painting of sunflowers. This fourth one is a bouquet of 14 flowers and is on a yellow background."[D]

The four works mentioned above are noted as "A" through "D" and further details are shown in this table below:

  Name Medium F JH Location
A Three Sunflowers in a Vase Oil on canvas 453 1559 Private collection
B Still Life: Vase with Five Sunflowers Oil on panel 459 1560 Destroyed by fire
C Still Life: Vase with Twelve Sunflowers Oil on canvas 456 1561 Munich, Neue Pinakothek
D Still Life: Vase with Fourteen Sunflowers Oil on canvas 454 1562 London, National Gallery

After Van Gogh's mental breakdown late in December in 1888, he would go on to paint three additional copies (F 455, F 457, F 458) of the original four sunflower works.

Quotes in Letters

  • "You know that Jeannin has the peony, Quost has the hollyhock, but I have the sunflower, in a way." (Letter 741)

  • "Thinking like this, but very far off, the desire comes over me to remake myself and try to have myself forgiven for the fact that my paintings are, however, almost a cry of anguish while symbolizing gratitude in the rustic sunflower. " (Letter 856)

A Note on the Species

Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) are an annual plant native to North and South America. The species includes more than thirty varieties including "Orange Sun" and "Taiyo." The large, puffball like specimens seen in Van Gogh's paintings are known as the "Teddy Bear" variety.

1. Jan Hulsker, The New Complete Van Gogh: Paintings, Drawings, Sketches, (p. 352).


Owner City Country Date acquired Comments
Julien Tanguy Paris France  

Count A. de la Rochefoucauld Paris France 1901
Paul Rosenberg Art Gallery Paris France
Carroll S. Tyson Jr. Chestnut Hill, Penn. United States 1935  
Philadelphia Museum of Art Philadelphia United States 1963 Mrs. Carroll S. Tyson bequest.


Year City Country Venue Exhibition Name Start Date End Date No.
1901 Paris France Galerie Bernheim-Jeune Exposition d'Oeuvres de Vincent van Gogh 15 March 1901 31 March 1901 6
1905 Paris France Grandes Serres de l'Alma Exposition de la Société des Artistes Indépendants, 21e exposition: Exposition rétrospective Vincent van Gogh 24 March 1905 30 April 1905 8
1935-36 New York United States Museum of Modern Art Vincent van Gogh 5 November 1935 5 January 1936 31
1936 San Francisco United States California Palace of the Legion of Honor Vincent van Gogh 28 April 1936 24 May 1936 31
1936 Philadelphia United States Philadelphia Museum of Art Vincent van Gogh 11 January 1936 10 February 1936 31
1936 Minneapolis United States Minneapolis Institute of Arts Vincent van Gogh 20 July 1936 17 August 1936 31
1936 Kansas City United States William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art and Atkins Museum Vincent van Gogh 9 June 1936 10 July 1936 31
1936 Detroit United States Detroit Institute of Arts Vincent van Gogh 6 October 1936 28 October 1936 31
1936 Cleveland (1) United States Cleveland Museum of Art Vincent van Gogh 25 March 1936 19 April 1936 31
1936 Boston United States Museum of Fine Arts Vincent van Gogh 19 February 1936 15 March 1936 31
1936 Chicago United States Art Institute of Chicago Vincent van Gogh 26 August 1936 23 September 1936 31
1943 New York (2) United States Wildenstein and Co. The Art and Life of Vincent van Gogh. Loan Exhibition in Aid of American and Dutch War Relief 6 October 1943 7 November 1943 28
1954 New York United States Wildenstein and Co. Magic of Flowers in Painting 12 April 1954 15 May 1954 27
1963 Philadelphia (1) United States Philadelphia Museum of Art A World of Flowers 2 May 1963 9 June 1963 ---

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