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 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.
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.