Blooming Lovely

A new exhibition at the National Gallery brings together two radiant versions of Van Gogh’s sunflowers

Art
Symphonies in yellow: "Sunflowers", 1888, by Vincent van Gogh: left, at the National Gallery, and right, at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam 

When Vincent van Gogh died in 1890 aged 37, following a few days of lingering agony after having shot himself, the mourners at his burial placed sunflowers on his coffin. Every succeeding spring his friend and physician Dr Gachet — and later the doctor’s son — would plant sunflowers on the grave. Van Gogh had first painted the blooms in 1886 when he arrived in Paris from Holland and they appear in the last picture he ever painted too. The flower stood, he said, for a sense of gratitude. But it also seems to have represented both the sunniness he yearned for, yet so rarely experienced, and the brevity of life, of which he himself became a symbol. The most celebrated of his sunflower pictures are those of the blooms in a simple half-glazed vase that he painted in the summer of 1888. He painted four versions and later three copies and the story of their creation is explored by Martin Bailey in his book The Sunflowers are Mine (Frances Lincoln, £25). 

The four initial pictures were painted in a single week as Van Gogh waited for Gauguin to arrive in Arles, where the two men planned to live and work together. Gauguin grew up in Peru and sunflowers originated in South America: the pictures were Van Gogh’s way of making his new studio mate feel welcome. During the week of August 20 a mistral was blowing and Van Gogh couldn’t work out of doors so he painted instead what lay to hand. He planned to work on a series of 12 sunflower pictures in all to brighten Gauguin’s room, a decorative scheme he likened to “a symphony in blue and yellow”. In the end he settled for four, the paintings using 10 tubes of paint — each tube being the equivalent of a meal in a restaurant and all paid for by Van Gogh’s faithful brother, Theo. The pictures showed compositions of three, six, 14 and 15 blooms.

After Van Gogh’s death the sunflower pictures and his three copies were dispersed. One disappeared into a private collection and was last exhibited in 1948; another was destroyed in Japan by an American bomb on the same day the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima; one spent the war evacuated to the servants’ quarters at mad Ludwig II of Bavaria’s Neuschwanstein castle; while a fourth became the world’s most expensive painting when it was bought by a Japanese insurance company for £25 million in 1987. The remainder found their way to museums around the world.

Two of the paintings, the National Gallery’s 15 sunflowers and the Van Gogh Museum’s signed copy of it from 1889, are now being reunited for the first time. The National Gallery exhibition (from January 25) will offer the opportunity to compare the paintings and will also include a technical exploration of the painter’s technique. They represent, too, a perfect example of Van Gogh’s fixation with his signature colour: “pale sulphur, yellow, pale lemon, gold. How beautiful yellow is!” he wrote. Yellow covers 95 per cent of the surface of the National’s picture.

Van Gogh believed his sunflowers would simply “catch the eye”. He was right, eventually. He sold only one painting in his lifetime and that was not of flowers but The Red Vineyard. Visitors now agree with him: the National Gallery’s painting is the most visited in the collection. There is an easy way for the staff to know: the varnish on the floor before it wears through more frequently than in front of any other picture.

The Courtauld Gallery’s new exhibition, A Dialogue with Nature, takes its title from the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich’s description of drawing the natural world. This is a small show, of only 26 drawings, watercolours and oil sketches, but it is an intense one. The pictures demonstrate the ways landscape affected British and German artists of the period from the 1760s to the 1840s. 

The likes of Friedrich and Samuel Palmer were not interested in topography but in the natural world as a spiritual aid and an inspiration for the imagination. Landscape for them was essentially numinous (“God is everywhere,” said Friedrich, “in the smallest grain of sand. I also wanted to show him in the reeds.”) For late Turner the reality of a scene was merely a template on which to build or record painterly and atmospheric effects. Other artists, however, such as Constable and Johann Georg von Dillis, sought the essence of nature through accurately depicting clouds or trees. All in their different ways showed man’s insignificance.

The exhibition is a collaboration between the Courtauld, with its holdings of British works, and the Morgan Library and Museum in New York, which has supplied the German pictures. These last are the most fascinating. German Romantic works are rare in Britain (there is only one Friedrich in the National Gallery and nothing by the extraordinary Philipp Otto Runge) so three drawings and watercolours by Friedrich and pictures by lesser but nevertheless distinctive artists, such as Karl Friedrich Lessing and Carl Philipp Fohr, represent riches.

“The artist should not only paint what he sees before him, but also what he sees in himself,” said Friedrich and this goes to the heart of the Romantic landscape. The pictures here — small-scale, beautiful, saturated with feeling and the intensity of vision — are full of ruins, woods and moonlight; the places and atmospheres that in sensitive souls encourage reflection. We may know that such motifs are simple triggers to feeling, but the Romantic legacy remains potent and the 26 pictures in the show are thus self-portraits of their artists’ sensibility in which we, Everyman, can still recognise ourselves.