Constant Reborn

Blossoming Almond Tree, Vincent van Gogh, 1890

 
 

“Yet incessant grows the tree

and the tree dies and another seed

comes to life and everything continues.

And it is not adversity that separates beings

but growth,

never has a flower died: it is constantly reborn.”

Pablo Neruda
Black Island Memorial

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The Painters of Sunflowers

Le Peintre de Tournesols

 
 

In November 1888, Paul Gauguin painted Vincent van Gogh in The Painter of Sunflowers (Le Peintre de Tournesol). The two had been living together in a yellow house in the small town of Arles in southern France. Van Gogh, who had arrived in Arles first, painted a series of sunflowers to decorate the guest room in anticipation of Gauguin joining him. When Gauguin did arrive, he did indeed enjoy the paintings. After the two had parted ways, Gauguin wrote to Vincent requesting that he may keep one of the paintings, calling them a “perfect page of an essential ‘Vincent’ style.”

Being a portrait, it is a representation of a man in a specific time. By late November, tension was starting to develop between Gauguin and van Gogh. Two strong personalities living in such close quarters was taking its toll. Vincent especially was working at a feverish pace, producing paintings at a rate as high as anytime in his life. It was not long after this was painted that Vincent had one of his spells of madness, and the two parted ways never to see each other again. When van Gogh saw the painting, he wrote “My face has lit up after all a lot since, but it was indeed me, extremely tired and charged with electricity as I was then.”

Despite how the two ended their time together, Gauguin always liked Vincent and especially his sunflower paintings. Showing Vincent painting sunflowers, Gauguin is showing the essence of van Gogh. Reflecting on his own work and his painting of sunflowers, Vincent said “I indeed, before others, have taken the sunflower.” The sunflowers were painted for Gauguin with thoughts of the future in mind. They represent the start of something good, hope, and dreams coming to fruition. Gauguin knew this, and saw them as what was good in van Gogh. Gauguin liked van Gogh’s painting of sunflowers so much he owned three of them. The Painter of Sunflowers is Gauguin’s celebration of his friend and the amazing work he knew he was producing.

 
 

Sunflowers with Puvis de Chavannes’s Hope, Paul Gauguin, 1901, Private Collection

 
 

Still Life with Sunflowers on an Armchair, Paul Gauguin,1901, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

 
 

Still Life with Sunflowers on an Armchair, Paul Gauguin, 1901, Private Collection

 
 

Still Life with Sunflowers and Mangoes, Paul Gauguin, 1901, Private Collection

 
 

Sunflowers are famously associated with Van Gogh. However, Vincent’s friend, colleague, and sometimes nemesis, Paul Gauguin, created his own interpretations of the golden floral symbol of southern France where Van Gogh and Gauguin once resided together.

Except that Gauguin painted his sunflowers in Tahiti in 1901 long after Van Gogh completed his final sunflower. For Vincent had decorated the walls of Gauguin’s bedroom with sunflowers in his honor back in 1888, when the two had shared Van Gogh’s tiny rented house in Arles. Yet, their days as roommates were limited and the relationship ended tragically when Vincent cut off his ear, signaling his descent into mental illness.

Although they never saw each other again, Van Gogh and Gauguin continued to correspond, exchanging letters up to Vincent’s death. Their mutual love and passion for art bonding the two, even during Vincent’s sojourn in a mental institution, where he continued to work, creating such masterpieces as Starry Night.

So let’s enjoy a mini-exhibition of sunflowers by the artists, beginning with the painting that started both Van Gogh and Gauguin on what could be considered their obsession with the subject. In this version by Vincent, he focuses on only two sunflowers, providing us with the almost startling close-up of the face of the one turned toward us. It was done in Paris in 1887, around the time Van Gogh met Gauguin, who had just returned from the Caribbean island of Martinque. To commemorate their new friendship, they exchanged paintings.

 
 

Sunflowers, Vincent Van Gogh, 1888, National Gallery, London

 
 

Gauguin never forgot that room and its glorious paintings, although when he wrote movingly about his experience years later, it was the London sunflowers he appeared to remember.

In my yellow room, sunflowers with purple eyes stand out on a yellow background; they bathe their stems in a yellow pot on a yellow table. In the corner of the painting, the signature of the painter: Vincent. And the yellow sun that passes through the yellow curtain of my room floods all this illumination with gold; and in the morning upon awakening from my bed, I imagine that all this smells very good.

Even when Gauguin moved to the exotic world of Tahiti, where he lived for most of the last decade of his life, the artist could not escape the memory of Vincent and his sunflowers. Ill, alone, and far from his native country of France, Gauguin probably spent his days dwelling on the past, particularly his time living with Van Gogh. For in October, 1898, close to ten years after his first viewing of the sunflowers that had filled the walls of his bedroom in Arles, Gauguin wrote to a friend to send him some sunflower seeds.

So in the midst of tropical Tahiti, Gauguin tended his garden of imported sunflowers until 1901, when he was ready to recreate them with his brush. Not one, but four canvases would result, as if Gauguin could not stop until he had fulfilled his own vision of the sunflowers.

Nothing But Big Flowers

“Now that I hope to live with Gauguin in a studio of our own, I want to make decorations for the studio. Nothing but big flowers.”

 
 

Sunflowers (original title, in French: Tournesols) are the subject of two series of still life paintings by the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh. The earlier series executed in Paris in 1887 depicts the flowers lying on the ground, while the second set executed a year later in Arles shows bouquets of sunflowers in a vase. In the artist’s mind both sets were linked by the name of his friend Paul Gauguin, who acquired two of the Paris versions. About eight months later Van Gogh hoped to welcome and to impress Gauguin again with Sunflowers, now part of the painted décoration that he prepared for the guestroom of his Yellow House, where Gauguin was supposed to stay in Arles. After Gauguin’s departure, Van Gogh imagined the two major versions as wings of the Berceuse Triptych, and finally he included them in his exhibit at Les XX in Bruxelles.

Little is known of Van Gogh’s activities during the two years he lived with his brother Theo in Paris, 1886-1888. The fact that he had painted Sunflowers already is only revealed in spring 1889, when Gauguin claimed one of the Arles versions in exchange for studies he had left behind after leaving Arles for Paris. Van Gogh was upset and replied that Gauguin had absolutely no right to make this request: “I am definitely keeping my sunflowers in question. He has two of them already, let that hold him. And if he is not satisfied with the exchange he has made with me, he can take back his little Martinique canvas, and his self-portrait sent me from Brittany, at the same time giving me back both my portrait[3] and the two sunflower canvases which he has taken to Paris. So if he ever broaches this subject again, I’ve told you just how matters stand.”

The two Sunflowers in question show two buttons each; one of them was preceded by a small study, and a fourth large canvas combines both compositions.

These were Van Gogh’s first paintings with “nothing but sunflowers”—yet, he had already included sunflowers in still life and landscape earlier.

 
 

 
 

None meets the descriptions supplied by Van Gogh himself in his announcement of the series in every detail. The first version differs in size, is painted on a size 20 canvas—not on a size 15 canvas as indicated —and all the others differ in the number of flowers depicted from Van Gogh’s announcement. The second was evidently enlarged and the initial composition altered by insertion of the two flowers lying in the foreground, center and right. Neither the third nor the fourth shows the dozen or 14 flowers indicated by the artist, but more—fifteen or sixteen. These alterations are executed wet-in-wet and therefore considered genuine rework—even the more so as they are copied to the repetitions of January 1889; there is no longer a trace of later alterations, at least in this aspect.

 
 

First version: turquoise background

 
 

Second version: royal-blue background

 
 

Third version: blue green background

 
 

Fourth version: yellow background. Leaving aside the first two versions, all Arlesian Sunflowers are painted on size 30 canvases.