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Van Gogh: Vase with Twelve Sunflowers

Saturday, January 18, 2020, I was glad to be here at the Arsenal Art Contemporain in Montreal to view, this time in a new way, the famous paintings of Van Gogh, projected on huge walls of the Immersive Exibition Imagine Van Gogh.

The works presented in Imagine Van Gogh are very numerous, perhaps more than two hundred. They cover the last two years of the painter’s life: the Arles Period, the Saint Rémy Period of Provence and the Auvers-sur-Oise Period. But in this Immersive Exhibition, there is a series of paintings by Van Gogh that caught my attention: Sunflowers in a Vase.

Sunflowers in a Vase is the name given to each of Vincent Van Gogh’s seven very famous works that were painted between 1888 and 1889. The sunflowers communicate the warmth of the color that Vincent found in Provence. He studied these flowers extensively as decoration for his dwelling; each radiates his passion for color, light and simplicity.

It was in August 1888, while living in Arles (France) that Van Gogh painted the first vase with twelve sunflowers, which is now on display at the Neue Pinakothek Museum in Munich, Germany. It is this painting, one of the artist’s best-known works, that accompanies this article.

This work presents us with a terracotta vase in which is placed a bouquet of twelve sunflowers. The vase and bouquet are on a brown table. These are presented on a flat surface with a background, in a simple and perspective-free way. The cold tone of the turquoise background accentuates the yellow tones of the petals and the yellow-brown centre and helps to reinforce the radiant presence of the ‘flowers of the sun’ that are sunflowers.

Van Gogh was at the height of his ability as a painter in the summer of 1888. He had painted sunflowers quickly and with a lot of energy and confidence. A letter from Vincent to his brother Theo, on August 21, 1888, proves it: “I am painting with the gusto of a Marseillais eating bouillabaisse [Provençal fish stew] which won’t surprise you when it’s a question of painting large sunflowers.”

Van Gogh acknowledged both that he had created something important and relished the fact that his sunflowers were so distinctive that they functioned almost like an artist’s signature. As he told Theo in January 1889, while other artists were known to paint particular flowers, “the sunflower is mine.” “Van Gogh realized early on that sunflowers were a unique and resonant motif that he could make his own,” explains Christopher Riopelle.

A letter from Vincent to Wilhelmina [August 21, 1888] adds: “I am currently working on a bouquet of twelve sunflowers in a yellow earth jar; I plan to decorate my entire workshop with nothing but sunflowers.”