October 20, 2021 3 min read

The sunflower was an important symbol to Van Gogh. And although he didn't live to see it, his wish came true his paintings of sunflowers were exhibited at the first exhibition of Les XX, an artistic society in Brussels. The sunflower wasn't just a subject for him. It had meaning on many different levels.

Van Gogh want to be known on the 'Sunflowers' paintings

In a letter to his brother Theo, Vincent describes the painting of "Sunflowers" he had been working on it for months. First his dealer said it was ugly, and wouldn't sell. But Vincent insisted, and put it in the window of his studio so people walking by could see it. And they did look at it for years after he was dead! The lesson here is that you should not allow yourself to be seduced by success stories into thinking that success is always linked.

Sunflowers, 1887

 In the late summer of 1887, Van Gogh painted a large number of cut and dried sunflowers. On a small canvas in Amsterdam is just a sketch from nature.

There are several versions of the "sunflowers" in the vase.

It is not entirely clear why Vincent painted multiple versions of the sunflower painting. He was not in fashion in post-impressionism in his time, so the money-making purpose of doing multiple versions of a painting must have been absent. He was also very occupied with painting other subjects, namely with making portraits and landscapes.

Art historians have speculated that he might have done these paintings just for his own pleasure, or maybe even to practice. He painted another two versions. One is in private hands, and the other painting was unfortunately lost during World War II.

Sunflowers, 1888

Sunflowers, 1889

Vincent was experimenting different colours to create a more vibrant picture.

In a letter to his sister Willemien, Van Gogh described his work as "a study of yellow." The artist Johannes Vermeer used shades of yellow to create an atmosphere of enchantment. But Van Gogh's sunflowers are brighter than Vermeer's paintings, and more varied in tone.

But that still doesn't explain why Van Gogh chose that particular shade of yellow. It's not just the colour itself, it's also the way he applied it. He made broad strokes with his brush, leaving bits of white paper showing through in places, like stalks or seeds in actual sunflowers. The contrast between light and dark plays an important role in Van Gogh's painting too, the flower heads stand out against the dark background. Art historian Wouter Tulp believes that Vincent was experimenting with layering different colours on top of each other, to create a more vibrant picture.

Six Sunflowers, 1888

Three Sunflowers, 1888Gauguin's made a paintings of Van Gogh while painting the sunflowers.

Gauguin and Van Gogh spent a lot of time together. Vincent was very enthusiastic about his plans for the artists’ community, while Gauguin was very pessimistic about it. He said he thought Vincent should just accept that he could never be anything but an amateur, and instead devote himself to painting.

It seems likely that Gauguin's opinion changed when he saw the sunflowers paintings in his room. The sunflower paintings are completely different to the ones in Paris. They are much more skilful, and they look more finished. Vincent later said that Gauguin took him seriously as an artist for the first time when he saw these paintings: ‘he admitted I had some color sense and said you were a born painter’.

The Painter of Sunflowers, 1888


There are many stories about the meaning of Vincent Van Gogh's 'Sunflowers'. One is that they were meant to symbolise gratitude, in thanks for his recovery from a mental breakdown.

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