“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 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.