His sunflowers are the most famous floral pictures in art. But Vincent van Gogh painted many, many other flowers – more than enough to prove his genius. Here’s a guide to the greatest…
by Nigel Andrew
Vincent van Gogh’s sunflower paintings are among the most famous and instantly recognisable in western art – and among the most expensive. When Still Life: Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers sold at auction in 1987, it fetched just short of US $40 million, more than tripling the record price for any work of art.
But van Gogh’s flower painting was by no means all about sunflowers – and indeed, it was his late painting of Irises that broke the auction record again in the same year as the Fifteen Sunflowers, selling for US $53.9 million.
Still Life: Vase with Fourteen Sunflowers (1888) one of the series of instantly-recognisable sunflower paintings. This one is at the National Gallery, London.
Van Gogh had been a flower painter throughout his career – partly because he couldn’t afford to pay models. As he wrote to his brother Theo, ‘I have lacked money for paying models, else I had given myself to figure painting, but I have made a series of colour studies in painting simply flowers, red poppies, blue cornflowers and myositis. White and pink roses, yellow chrysanthemums…’
He could hardly have been better employed: it is hard to imagine that he would have got very far as a figure painter, but his studies of flowers liberated him to explore the world of colours from which he would create his greatest work.
Brighter, freer and looser
Self-portrait – Paris, Summer 1887 (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam)
First Vincent had to free himself from the muddy palette that had characterised his earliest works, such as the famous Potato Eaters. When he moved to Paris in the mid-1880s, Theo urged him to paint in brighter, stronger colours, and flower painting enabled him to do this.
Vincent took the enterprise seriously, studying Dutch and Flemish flower painters of the golden age, and initially adopting their habit of depicting flowers against a dark background. In early van Gogh flower paintings, such as Glass with Roses (below) and Vase with Carnations, all the colour is in the flowers, while the background is conventionally gloomy.
Glass with Roses, 1886 (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam)
However, there are some bright and exuberant arrangements among these early efforts, such as the Vase with Gladioli and Lilac, and van Gogh’s handling of paint was becoming freer and looser. Vincent was about to break free and find himself as an artist.
Vase with Gladioli and Lilac, 1886 (Private Collection)
The Blue Vase period
The turning point came in 1887, by which time Vincent was totally immersed in flower painting, getting used to ‘colours other than grey [as he wrote to his sister] – pink, soft or bright green, light blue, violet, yellow, glorious red’.
He was also exploring colour theory and the rich possibilities of setting one colour against another – and, of course, he was coming into contact with Impressionism, Pointillism and Divisionism, with Japanese woodcuts and all the ferment of artistic ideas that were being aired in Paris at the time. Meanwhile, his friends encouraged Vincent by buying him bouquets to paint, and he also found flower paintings a useful way to pay restaurant bills.
Vase with Lilacs, Daisies and Anemones, 1887 (Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Geneva)
A high point of his work at this time was a series of paintings of flowers in a blue vase, set against variously coloured backgrounds. Pictures such as Vase with Lilacs, Daisies and Anemones (above), Flowers in a Blue Vase and Vase with Daisies and Anemones show how far van Gogh’s immersion in flower painting had taken his art.
Vase with Daisies and Anemones, 1887 (Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo)
These Blue Vase paintings are bursting with life and energy, with vibrant colour and swift, exploratory brushwork. In them we see the greatness of the mature artist emerging.
As for the flowers, Vincent painted everything from Asters (Vase with Autumn Asters) to Zinnias (Bowl with Zinnias and Other Flowers), by way of Carnations, Chrysanthemums (Chrysanthemums and Wild Flowers in a Vase), Gladioli, Peonies (Bowl with Peonies and Roses) – and, oh yes, Sunflowers.
Chrysanthemums and Wild Flowers in a Vase, 1887 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)
Bowl with Peonies and Roses, 1886 (Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo)
Maturity and madness
The famous Sunflower paintings were among the products of the great, er, flowering of van Gogh’s art that followed his arrival in Provence in 1888, where the bright, sun-baked landscapes awakened him to the full expressive possibilities of colour and paint.
‘Van Gogh Painting Sunflowers’ by Paul Gaughin, 1888 (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam)
It was a period of intense creative endeavour and mental ferment that came to a traumatic crisis with the famous incident involving Gauguin and the severed ear. Vincent ended up in an asylum in Saint-Remy – and, while there, he again began painting flowers. It was in the asylum gardens there that he painted the famous Irises, a picture that so impressed his brother Theo that he entered it in the Salon des Independants of 1889.
Irises, 1889 (J. Paul Getty Museum, LA)
Irises and roses – the last great paintings
Irises, 1890 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Towards the end of his stay in the asylum, van Gogh was feeling calm and confident that his mental crisis was behind him. His final flower paintings are suffused with this new feeling of serenity, showing flowers in full bloom, freely arranged and zestfully rendered.
Vase with Irises Against a Yellow Background, 1890 (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam)
Vincent painted violet Irises against a yellow background and against a pink background (1890, Metropolitan Museum of Art) and several delightful studies of roses (Still Life: Pink Roses, also Roses and Vase with Pink Roses) as well as a lovely rendering of almond blossom against a blue sky. These paintings of 1890 are among his most beautiful late works, though inevitably they tend to get overshadowed by those blazing Sunflowers.
Still Life: Vase with Pink Roses, 1890 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)
Sadly, just a few months after the hopeful period in which he painted these last great flower paintings, Vincent van Gogh had died by his own hand. He died an obscure painter who had scarcely sold a picture, but in the years that followed he achieved a towering reputation as a giant of modern art.
I’d like to think that, if nothing of his work had survived but his flower paintings, he would still be regarded as one of the greats.
Nigel Andrew is a writer and host of the Nigeness culture blog.