I have a weird personal connection to Van Gogh and his sunflower paintings as there has been a poster (or other version) of this painting present at every job I’ve ever had (though to be fair, I was so impressed with the poster at my first “real” job that I bought a small copy and took it with me whenever I’ve had a private office).
Even though I’m now an adjunct instructor without a permanent office, I still keep a copy of this painting. It always seemed like such a happy image to me; and I was a bit surprised by this as I began to learn more about Van Gogh and his pretty sad existence, so I looked into it a bit further. Unfortunately for my students who may not share my enthusiasm, the fruits of my research frequently make it into my lectures (yes, I have that particular sunflower painting in my lecture PowerPoints :0).
Basically, Van Gogh had a largely sad existence, pretty much from birth. In fact, when he was born, his parents named him Vincent after his deceased older brother—as something of a replacement (talk about creating issues early for the poor kid). He seems to have had few, if any, friends—except for a brother (not the one he replaced) that looked out for him his entire life. It sounds like he was basically chased out of the Paris art scene, with other artists encouraging him to move to the countryside (i.e. away from them) to better capture his muse. His brother even had to pay the artist Gauguin to come to stay with Vincent and to pretend to be his friend. Vincent did not know about the payment, and he was extremely excited about Gauguin’s visit. It looks like he thought the Paris art scene was coming to him. It was in this mood that he painted Sunflowers. Van Gogh had a tendency to grab hold of a theme and paint many, many paintings based on that theme. Sunflowers are one of those themes. In preparing for the Gauguin visit, Van Gogh painted a number of similar paintings—all displaying different combinations of sunflowers in vases. Check out Google Images to get a good idea of the scope of this work. These paintings should not be confused with his other foray into sunflowers—a group of paintings I like to refer to as the dead sunflowers.
All in all, Sunflowers and its siblings were painted at a very happy time for Van Gogh—arguably the last happy time he would ever have. Everything fell apart for him shortly thereafter, however. He found out his brother was getting married (which apparently filled him with feelings of abandonment), and he and Gauguin got into a fight in which Gauguin announced he was leaving and essentially told Vincent that his brother was not paying him enough to put up with Vincent. These disappointments seem to be what led Vincent to cut off a portion of his ear and to give it to a young woman working in a brothel. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend PBS’s Secrets of the Dead: Van Gogh’s Ear which talks about this at length.
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