Two of Van Gogh's Sunflower paintings reunited at the National Gallery

By Adela Ryle | 28 October 2013

The National Gallery is to reunite two versions of Vincent Van Gogh’s much loved Sunflowers for the first time in 65 years, borrowing one of the works from Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum.

An oil painting of twelve yellow sunflowers in a clay jug
Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers (1889-01). Oil on canvas. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)© Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)
The free display will give visitors a unique opportunity to compare the paintings side-by side, as well as revealing new research into the making and meaning of the works and their relationship to each other.

Among the most famous masterpieces in the world, the two works are part of a series of five which are now spread across the globe, in Tokyo, Philadelphia and Munich.

an oil painting of 15 yellow sunflowers in a clay jug, with the signature vincent in blue.
Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers (1888). Oil on canvas. Bought, Courtauld Fund, 1924© National Gallery, London
They date from 1888, when Van Gogh left the gloomy weather of Paris to paint in the sunshine of the South of France. He settled in The Yellow House in Arles and invited Paul Gauguin to join him.

A great admirer of Gauguin’s work, Van Gogh hoped to form a collective of artists and painted the sunflowers for him as a sign of welcome. Deeply influenced by Japanese art, he had come to see colour as having symbolic meaning and yellow, in particular, stood for warmth and friendship.

“The whole thing will be a symphony in blue and yellow” Van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo, in August 1888. “I am working at it every morning from sunrise on, for the flowers fade so quickly.”

After repeated requests Gauguin came and stayed in the Yellow House for eight weeks while the two artists worked together. His work, The Painter of Sunflowers: Portrait of Vincent Van Gogh, was completed there.

By December, their relationship had deteriorated and it was after an argument between them that Van Gogh famously cut off his ear with a razor blade. Gauguin left Arles without visiting him in hospital. When Van Gogh returned to the house it was empty except for his paintings.

Despite its sad associations, Sunflowers is one of the National Gallery’s most enduringly popular images. “This exhibition is designed to help those for whom the paintings by Van Gogh are compelling images to understand how they were made – and made again – and out of what materials” says Dr Nicholas Perry, the Director of the National Gallery. “It will deepen every visitor’s understanding of the artist.”

The dying flowers are built up with thick brush strokes, evoking the texture of the seed-heads. But where the petals remain they are often painted with just a single soft yellow brushstroke.

In another letter to Theo, Van Gogh wrote: “You know that the peony is Jeannin's, the hollyhock belongs to Quost, but the sunflower is somewhat my own.”

  • The Sunflowers will be on display in Room 46 of the National Gallery from January 25 – April 27 2014.

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