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Three Sunflowers in a Vase

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Oil on canvas
73.0 x 58.0 cm.
Arles: August, 1888
F 453, JH 1559

United States: private collection


See below

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In August, 1888 Vincent van Gogh began painting a series of works which, as Dr. Jan Hulsker suggests "perhaps more than any other of his paintings, have made him known throughout the world. They are often the only works with which he is identified."1 This series is, of course, the sunflowers.

Van Gogh envisioned his sunflower works as a series and worked diligently on them in anticipation of the arrival in Arles of his friend, Paul Gauguin. In a letter to Emile Bernard written around 21 August 1888 Vincent wrote: "I’m thinking of decorating my studio with half a dozen paintings of Sunflowers. A decoration in which harsh or broken yellows will burst against various blue backgrounds, from the palest Veronese to royal blue, framed with thin laths painted in orange lead. Sorts of effects of stained-glass windows of a Gothic church." (Letter 665).

Vincent eventually planned a dozen sunflower works to be hung in the Yellow House which he and Gauguin would use for a studio. "I’d like to do a decoration for the studio. Nothing but large Sunflowers. Next door to your shop, in the restaurant, as you know, there’s such a beautiful decoration of flowers there; I still remember the big sunflower in the window. Well, if I carry out this plan there’ll be a dozen or so panels. The whole thing will therefore be a symphony in blue and yellow. I work on it all these mornings, from sunrise. Because the flowers wilt quickly and it’s a matter of doing the whole thing in one go." (666). Unfortunately, Vincent's race against the changing seasons was unsuccessful and he was only able to complete four sunflower works in August, 1888.

Without question, the most valuable resource with regards to insights into the development and execution of Van Gogh's works are his letters to his brother, Theo, and others. In his typically detailed and precise manner, Van Gogh describes the origin of the first three works in this series: I have 3 canvases on the go, 1) 3 large flowers in a green vase, light background (no. 15 canvas), [A] 2) 3 flowers, one flower that’s gone to seed and lost its petals and a bud on a royal blue background (no. 25 canvas), [B] 3) twelve flowers and buds in a yellow vase (no. 30 canvas). So the last one is light on light, and will be the best, I hope." [C] (666). A few days later Vincent writes in Letter 668: "I’m now on the fourth painting of sunflowers. This fourth one is a bouquet of 14 flowers and is on a yellow background."[D]

The four works mentioned above are noted as "A" through "D" and further details are shown in this table below:

  Name Medium F JH Location
A Three Sunflowers in a Vase Oil on canvas 453 1559 Private collection
B Still Life: Vase with Five Sunflowers Oil on panel 459 1560 Destroyed by fire
C Still Life: Vase with Twelve Sunflowers Oil on canvas 456 1561 Munich, Neue Pinakothek
D Still Life: Vase with Fourteen Sunflowers Oil on canvas 454 1562 London, National Gallery

After Van Gogh's mental breakdown late in December in 1888, he would go on to paint three additional copies (F 455, F 457, F 458) of the original four sunflower works.

Quotes in Letters

  • "You know that Jeannin has the peony, Quost has the hollyhock, but I have the sunflower, in a way." (Letter 741)

  • "Thinking like this, but very far off, the desire comes over me to remake myself and try to have myself forgiven for the fact that my paintings are, however, almost a cry of anguish while symbolizing gratitude in the rustic sunflower. " (Letter 856)

A Note on the Species

Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) are an annual plant native to North and South America. The species includes more than thirty varieties including "Orange Sun" and "Taiyo." The large, puffball like specimens seen in Van Gogh's paintings are known as the "Teddy Bear" variety.

1. Jan Hulsker, The New Complete Van Gogh: Paintings, Drawings, Sketches, (p. 352).


Owner City Country Date acquired
Julien Tanguy Paris France  
Octave Mirbeau Paris France 1892
Jacques Doucet Paris France 1928
Private collection  
United States  


Year City Country Venue Exhibition Name Start Date End Date No.
1901 Paris France Galerie Bernheim-Jeune Exposition d'Oeuvres de Vincent van Gogh 15 March 1901 31 March 1901 4
1927 Paris France Galerie Bernheim-Jeune Vincent van Gogh l'époque française 20 June 1927 2 July 1927
1948 Cleveland United States Cleveland Museum of Art Vincent van Gogh 3 November 1948 12 December 1948 9

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