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Reflections on Van Gogh's Painting (I)

By Cristian Peri

The Sunflowers

Van Gogh showed an interest in sunflowers as early as the summer of 1987, or even earlier, i.e. "Bowl with Sunflowers, Roses, and Other Flowers"(F 250) (very beautiful!) painting, "Four Cut Sunflowers"(F 452), "Two Cut Sunflowers"(F 377), "Two Cut Sunflowers"(F 376), and "Two Cut Sunflowers"(F 375). He painted "Three Sunflowers in a Vase"(F 453) and "Still Life: Vase with Five Sunflowers"(F 459), and was able to create the stunning series beginning with "Sill Life: Vase with Twelve Sunflowers"(F 456) and "Still Life: Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers"(F 454) in August/September 1888.

(Letter 526, Arles, c. 21 August 1888: I am hard at it, painting with the enthusiasm of a Marseillais eating bouillabaisse, which won't surprise you when you know that what I'm at is the painting of some big sunflowers. I have three canvases going – 1st, three huge flowers in a green vase, with light background, a size 15 canvas; 2nd, three flowers, one gone to seed, having lost its petals, and one a bud against a royal-blue background, size 25 canvas; 3rd, twelve flowers and buds in a yellow vase (size 30 canvas). The last one is therefore light on light, and I hope it will be the best. Probably I shall not stop at that. … Next door to your shop, in the restaurant you know there is a lovely decoration of flowers; I always remember the big sunflowers in the window there. …. So the whole thing will be a symphony in blue and yellow. I am working at it every morning from sunrise on, for the flowers fade so soon, and the thing is to do the whole in one rush.)

(Letter 534, Arles 9 September 1888: But you will see these great pictures of the sunflowers, 12 or 14 to the bunch, crammed into this tiny boudoir with its pretty bed and everything else dainty. It will not be commonplace.)

Realizing the astonishing beauty of his sunflowers he made a few (three), (quite) identical copies, "Still Life: Vase with Fifteen Sun Flowers"(F 457), Still Life: Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers" (F 458), and "Still Life: Vase with Twelve Sunflowers"(F 455). (Note: The Sunflowers Van Gogh made in the winter of 1888/1889 are not necessarily copies, they are originals having the same subject. Van Gogh called them copies in his letters that may create the feeling that they had to be identical. An artist painting the same subject is always tempted to make at least some little changes in the next representations of the same theme, so identical is actually relatively identical.)

(Letter 563, Arles, c. 23 November 1888: Gauguin was telling me the other day that he had seen a picture by Claude Monet of sunflowers in a large Japanese vase, very fine, but – he likes mine better.)

(Letter 573, Arles, 23 January 1989: I have good and ill luck in my production but not ill luck only. For instance, if our Monticelli bunch of flowers is worth 500 francs to a collector, and it is, then I dare swear to you that my sunflowers are worth 500 francs too, to one of these Scots or Americans. Now to get up heat enough to melt that gold, those flower-tones, it isn't any old who can do it, it need the force and the concentration of a single individual whole and entire. …. …. …. But if you like you can exhibit the two pictures of sunflowers. Gauguin would be glad to have one, and I should very much like to give Gauguin a real pleasure. So if he wants one of the two canvases, all right, I will do one of them over again, whichever he likes. You will see that these canvases will catch the eye. But I would advise you to keep them for yourself, just for your own private pleasure and that of your wife. It is a kind of painting that rather changes in character, and takes on a richness the longer you look at it. Besides, you know, Gauguin likes them extraordinarily. He said to me among other things – "That…it's…the flower".)

(Letter 574, Arles, 28 January 1889: During your visit you must have noticed the two size 30 canvases of sunflowers in Gauguin's room. I have just put the finishing touches to copies, absolutely identical replicas of them.)

Perhaps this beautiful plant/flower partly wild, to a degree ornamental/decorative, and also industrial/commercial with its characteristics (tall stalk, rough leaves, flower like a large disc, dark seeds, and intense yellow petals) and relation to the sun (the Sun – so significant to Van Gogh), relatively rarely painted by others as still life, captivated him. With his excellent artistic intuition, Van Gogh understood that "Sunflowers" were a great subject. Painting a bunch of somewhat wilted sunflowers, in incredible nuances of yellow, ochre, and green he arrived at fantastic outcomes in the summer of 1888. Van Gogh stylized the images of these flowers a bit and chose matching mellow tones of colors as can first be seen in "Three Sunflowers in a Vase"(F 453) and "Still Life: Vase with Five Sunflowers"(F 459), and then in the more refined series of twelve and fifteen sunflowers that followed. The simple background of these paintings makes the flowers stand out more than graciously. He was extremely enchanted with his "Sunflowers" and expressed his delight a number of times mostly in the summer-autumn of 1888, which perhaps was one of the happiest periods of his life. Gauguin was impressed with his "Sunflowers", too (Quoted by Van Gogh; see Letter 573).

As often happens, artists go about painting an interesting subject a couple of times, until they feel they reach desired results. Progress comes unknowingly, with time, and the day of a great accomplishment or a stroke of genius may come any next day. The "Sunflowers" are definitely symphonies in yellow (and blue). The use of yellow is perhaps one of the specifics of Van Gogh's painting reaching a perfect harmony in his sunflowers. During the same years of 1888/1889, among other great paintings of Van Gogh, one can count "The Sower": "The Sower"(F 422), The Sower"(F 494), The Sower"(F 450), and "The Sower"(F 451); "Willows at Sunset"(F 572), "The Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles, at Night"(F 467), "Starry Night Over the Rhone"(F 474), and "Dance Hall at Arles"(F 547).

Flowers, Sunflowers, Irises, and Cypresses in Van Gogh's Painting.

Van Gogh first started painting flowers and still life(s) with flowers in the summer of 1886 after moving to Paris, i.e. "Vase with Myosotis and Peonies"(F 243a), "Vase with Carnations"(F 243), "Vase with Daisies"(F 197), "Vase with Gladioli and Lilac"(F 286a), "Bowl with Sunflowers, Roses, and other Flowers"(F 250), etc.  Then he painted flowers each summer, i.e. in the spring and summer of 1887 he painted "Fritillaries in a Copper Vase"(F 213), "Vase with Lilacs, Daisies, and Anemones"(F 322), the series of cut sunflowers, etc. In the spring and summer 1888, in Arles, Van Gogh painted  "Still Life: Majolica Jug with Wildflowers"(F 600), "Still Life: Vase with Oleanders and Books"(F 593), "Still Life: Vase with Zinnias"(F 592), "Thistles"(F 447) and "Two Thistles"(F 447a), and the famous vases with sunflowers. In 1889, at Saint Remy, Van Gogh painted his admirable "Irises"(F 608) and in 1990 "Still Life: Pink Roses in a Vase"(F 682), Still Life: Vase with Irises Against a Yellow Background"(F 678), etc., and in Auvers-sur-Oise "Still Life: Pink Roses"(F 595), "Still Life: Red Poppies and Daisies"(F 280), etc.

Subjects like sunflowers, irises, and cypresses, first appeared tangentially in Van Gogh's paintings, but at some point became the central themes of some of his work leading to the making of masterpieces.

Sunflowers were initially painted in "Bowl with Sunflowers, Roses, and Other Flowers"(F 250) (very beautiful!), "House with Sunflowers"(F 810), "Garden with Sunflowers"(F 388v), "Montmartre Path with Sunflowers"(F 264a), "Two Cut Sunflowers"(F 377), while in Paris, and the series including "Still Life: Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers"(F 454), and Still Life: Vase with Twelve Sunflowers"(F 456), later, while in Arles.

Irises first occur in "View of Arles with Irises in the Foreground"(F 409), and then in masterpieces painted in Saint-Remy, i.e. "Iris"(F 601), "Irises"(F 608), "Still Life: Vase with Irises"(F 680), and "Still Life: Vase with Irises Against a Yellow Background"(F 678).

Cypresses appear tangentially in "Orchard in Blossom Bordered by Cypresses"(F 554), "Orchard in Blossom Bordered by Cypresses"(F 513), painted while in Arles, and then as main component in "Cypresses"(F 613), "Cypresses with Two Female Figures"(F 620), "Green Wheat Field with Cypresses"(F 719), "Wheat Field with Cypresses at Haute Galline near Eygaliers"(F 717), "Wheat Field with Cypresses"(F 615), "Wheat Field with Cypresses"(F 743), "Cypresses and Two Women"(F 621), and "Road with Cypress and Star"(F 683), all painted later in Saint-Remy.

What do sunflowers and irises have in common? They are decorative, but also field/wild flowers. They usually grow in fields, in some gardens, and at the margins of roads. Of course, irises were growing in the Saint-Paul hospital's garden and were at hand and perhaps Van Gogh found a certain inner pleasure in painting them. Van Gogh was able to find infinite beauty and harmony in these flowers, a bit more perhaps than he could find in roses, gladioli, or anemones.

Backgrounds and Foregrounds in Van Gogh's Art

Backgrounds in Van Gogh's painting can be anything, the sky during the day, at night, at sunset and sunrise, the sun, a field, walls of a chamber, or simply the space that is behind the subject in the foreground. It seems that Van Gogh paid special attention to backgrounds, often making them major elements of his paintings. For instance, Van Gogh never painted the sky in any conventional manner (what would he make conventionally, though?).  In his paintings, Van Gogh might rarely have painted some clear serene azure skies, but no puffy, cotton-like clouds. He preferred and seemingly was looking for more expressive ways of depicting the sky and other backgrounds. His famous swirling clouds are perhaps most beautiful in his masterpieces "Wheat Field with Cypresses" (F 615) and "Wheat Field with Cypresses at the Haut Galline Near Eygaliers"(F 717) painted in 1889 while the artist was at Saint Remy. The swirling sky/clouds in association with the waving lines of cypresses appear in some other paintings from the same period, like "Cypresses"(F 613), "Cypresses with Two Female Figures"(F 620), and "Cypresses and Two Women"(F 621), "Cottages and Cypresses: Reminiscence of the North"(F 675) (What a sky!), and the rolling sky also in "Landscape under a Stormy Sky"(F 575), "Green Wheat Fields"(F 807), "Mountainous Landscape behind Saint-Paul Hospital"(F 611), "Two Peasant Women Digging in Field with Snow"(F 695), "Wheat Fields at Auvers under Clouded Sky"(F 781), etc. The sun played an important role in Van Gogh's painting as well. The best examples are in the series of "The Sower": "The Sower"(F 422) The Sower"(F 494), The Sower"(F 450), and "The Sower"(F 451) painted while in Arles, and a few other like "The Red Vineyard"(F 495), "Willows at Sunset"(F 572), "Olive Trees with Yellow Sky and Sun"(F 710), "Enclosed Field with Rising Sun"(F 737), "Sunset: Wheat Fields Near Arles"(F 465), "Wheat Field with Reaper and Sun"(F 617), etc. Quite often, in his paintings, Van Gogh renders a sun lighting and warming the planet, stimulating life with its powerful and beneficial rays.

A flat, almost monochrome background is often seen in Van Gogh's still life(s), i.e. "Still Life: Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers"(F 454), "Still Life: Vase with Twelve Sunflowers"(F 455), and portraits, i.e. "Portrait of the Artist's Mother"(F 477), "Portrait of Armand Roulin"(F 492), etc. More often though, Van Gogh added "details" to his portraits and self-portraits' backgrounds, most often swirling lines, i.e. Self-Portrait"(F 627), short thick curved lines, i.e. "Portrait of Dr. Gachet"(F 753), or even motifs and patterns, i.e. "Portrait of Postman Joseph Roulin"(F 436), "Portrait of Dr. Felix Rey"(F 500), or "Portrait of Eugene Boch"(F 462). The background of "Portrait of Eugene Boch" shows a Van Gogh contemplating the idea of painting night skies, which he did while in Arles and Saint-Remy. It seems that Van Gogh felt that he painted a friend when he painted Dr. Rey's portrait adding some motifs/colorful patterns to the background as he did to a few portraits of members of Roulin family, i.e. "La Berceuse (Augustine Roulin)"(F 505), "Portrait of Postman Joseph Roulin"(F 435), etc., painted during approximately the same period. In spite of its good quality and resemblance, Dr. Rey did not enjoy his portrait (!) and used the canvas to mend a chicken coop, but because of this portrait and just a little for his medical activity, he entered history. The variety of these backgrounds as pattern and color shows a Van Gogh often daring and playful looking for unconventional ways of expression. In his paintings, even the air (the atmosphere around the main subject) is painted, filled with color, i.e. "Self-Portrait"(F 627).

One of most astonishing accomplishments of Van Gogh is the way he painted the night sky in different circumstances, i.e. "The Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles, at Night"(F 467), "Starry Night Over the Rhone"(F 474), "Starry Nigh"(F 612), and      "Road with Cypress and Star"(F 683). If other artists have painted night scenes and night skies occasionally, no one has ever done this as beautifully as Van Gogh was able to do. In Van Gogh's paintings, the background plays a major role, it is not just a simple décor or some décor for the subject(s) in the foreground; it is a substantial part of the painting. He tried to make the background contribute to the message of the whole. Van Gogh found exceptional ways of expression, through color, composition, and drawing with admirable talent, patience, and hard work. This has nothing to do with and cannot be attributed to his illness. 

Common Subjects vs. Great Themes

Painting requires not only at least some proficiency in using colors, but also some skill in picking subjects, which is not always a simple choice. The Impressionist perhaps extended the variety of themes and the way they were viewed and painted. Any artist could easily try his/her hand at any of the long established genres like landscape/seascape, floral, portrait, etc. Van Gogh painted anything that stirred his interest at a time, as can be seen in the table below.

Nr. Subject Example F
1 Peasants The Sower 422
2 Workers Weaver near an Open Window 24
3 Statues (torsos) Plaster Statuette of a Female Torso 216b
4 Nudes Nude Woman Reclining, Seen From the Back 328
5 Fruit Still Life with Apples 254
6 Flowers Still Life: Pink Roses 595
7 Portraits Portrait of Patience Escalier 444
8 Self-Portraits Self-Portrait 626
9 Shoes A Pair of Shoes 333
10 Skulls Skull 297
11 Cows Lying Cow 1
12 Butterflies Great Peacock Moth 610
13 Birds The Kingfisher 28
14 Potatoes Basket of Potatoes 100
15 Thistles Tow Thistles 447a
16 Grass Clumps of Grass 582
17 Sunflowers Still Life: Vase with Twelve Sunflowers 456
18 Irises Irises 608
19 Fields Field with Poppies 581
20 Wheat fields Wheat Field with Cornflowers 808
21 Orchards Orchard in Blossom 511
22 Cypresses Cypresses 613
23 Trees Tree Trunks with Ivy 746
24 Willows Willows at Sunset 572
25 Restaurants Interior of a Restaurant 342
26 The sky and the stars Starry Night 612
27 The night The Café Terrace on Place du Forum, Arles, at Night 467
28 Scenes from cities The Pont du Carrousel and the Louvre 221
29 Cities' outskirts View of Paris from Montmartre 262
30 Mills La Moulin de la Galette 228
31 Bridges The Langlois Bridge at Arles 570
32 Villages View of Auvers 799
33 Scenes from parks Entrance to the Public Park in Arles 566
34 Gardens Marguerite Gachet in the Garden 756
35 Vineyards The Green Vineyard 745
36 Lovers Two Lovers 544
37 The rain Wheat Field in Rain 650
38 Bedrooms The Bedroom 484
39 Chairs Paul Gauguin's Armchair 499
40 Seascapes Seascape at Saint-Marie 417
41 Railway carriages Railway carriages 446
42 Lilacs Lilacs 579
43 Falling leaves The Walk: Falling Leaves 651
44 Olive trees Olive Trees with Yellow Sky and Sun 710
45 Poplars Two Poplars on a\ Road to the Hills 638
46 Road menders Road Menders 658
47 Pine trees Study of Pine Trees 742
48 Olive pickers Olive Picking 654
49 Cottages Thatched Cottages in the Sunshine: Reminiscence of the North 674
50 Sorrow Old Man in Sorrow 702
51 Churches Church at Auvers 789
52 Blossoming branches Blossoming Chestnut Branches 820
53 Children Two Children 783
54 Farmhouses Farmhouses with Two Figures 806
55 Carts Cart with Black Ox 39
56 Potato planting Potato Planting 172
57 The stormy sky Landscape under a Stormy Sky 575
58 Potato eaters The Potato Eaters 82
59 The sunset Landscape at Sunset 79

Note 1: "F" in the fourth column is the catalog number of Van Gogh's paintings (Faille, de la) under which they can be found on the "Van Gogh Gallery" website.

Note 2: This table does not exhaust all of the subjects of Van Gogh's paintings, but rather shows roughly what he painted.

Though Van Gogh approached quite a number of subjects and themes during his years as an artist, with time he quit some and added others, becoming somewhat more selective. He perhaps instinctively tried to find that beauty existing in almost everything. His daring curiosity and effort led him to paint masterpieces of sunflowers, irises, cypresses, and starry nights. Leaving home every day with an easel and painting box, as uncomfortable as it might have been, the artist tried to find, beauty, inspiration, and essence of things everywhere. Many of Van Gogh's beautiful paintings were created in just the small villages of Arles, Saint-Remy, and Auvers-sur-Oise and a few miles around. His subjects were all there, the flowers, the fields, and the sky.

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