Vincent Van Gogh was active as an artist for ten years, but spent only five as a full-time painter. No one, least of all the artist, could have foreseen the immense impact his life and art would have in establishing him as one of the most famous modern artists.
Throughout his life, Van Gogh was supported emotionally and financially by his brother Theo, a Paris-based art dealer. The hundreds of letters they exchanged provide a first-person insight into the artist’s struggles to support himself financially, to maintain relationships and develop his style and technique of painting.
Van Gogh painted this vase of sunflowers in Arles, in the south of France, in August 1888. It was one of four that he painted as part of a decorative ensemble designed to be hung in the bedroom allocated to his friend, the painter Paul Gauguin, who arrived in Arles on 23rd October of that year. This painting was the fourth in the group and only one of two that Van Gogh thought worthy of signing and he regarded it as marking a personal artistic high point.
Van Gogh invited Gauguin to stay with the hope that together they would establish an artist colony and “studio of the south” – a commune of like-minded painters. Communal living would provide them with a sympathetic and stimulating environment to live, work and talk about art.
This painting was designed to impress Gauguin, who had admired an early still life with sunflowers that Van Gogh had painted when he was living in Paris. Although meant to be decorative, Van Gogh used the sunflowers to develop his use of saturated colour and thick impasto style of painting. Fascinated by the principles of complementary and discordant colours, Van Gogh was acutely sensitive to how and where his paintings were seen and displayed. After initially picturing the yellow sunflowers hanging on the white walls of the bedroom, he later changed his mind and saw them instead becoming the clashing pendants in a triptych containing, what he described as his ‘garish’ portrait of Augustine Roulin that is dominated by various shades of green and red.
The importance of the sunflower was not lost on Gauguin, who, during his brief stay in Arles, painted a portrait of Van Gogh with his sunflower painting. Although the strain of having Gauguin as his guest proved too great – it resulted in the breakdown that led to Van Gogh infamously cutting off his left ear and being hospitalised – the two artists remained friends. In January 1889, Gauguin wrote a letter to Van Gogh in which he described his friend’s painting of ‘sunflowers on a yellow background” as “a perfect page of an essential ‘Vincent’ style”.
When you have finished looking at all the paintings in this room please exit the exhibition. On behalf of the National Gallery of Australia we hope you have enjoyed Botticelli to Van Gogh: Masterpieces from the National Gallery, London.