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Still Life: Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers

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Oil on canvas
93.0 x 73.0 cm.
Arles: August, 1888
F 454, JH 1562

London: National Gallery


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 Fifteen 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 Comments
Johanna van Gogh-Bonger Amsterdam Netherlands

Isaac Israëls The Hague Netherlands
On loan from 1917 until 1920.
Ernest Brown & Phillips (The Leicester Galleries) London United Kingdom January, 1924
Tate Gallery London United Kingdom 1924 Courtauld Fund.
National Gallery London United Kingdom


Year City Country Venue Exhibition Name Start Date End Date No.
1901 Berlin (2) Germany Paul Cassirer

1905 Amsterdam Netherlands Stedelijk Museum Tentoonstelling Vincent van Gogh 15 July 1905 1 August 1905 103
1905 Hagen Germany Folkwang Museum Vincent van Gogh. Gemälde

1908 Dresden Germany Emil Richter Vincent van Gogh/Paul Cézanne  
1908 Berlin (5) Germany Paul Cassirer  
1908 Berlin (1) Germany Ausstellungshaus am Kurfürstendamm VII. Ausstellung 5 March 1908 22 March 1908 8
1909 Munich Germany Moderne Kunsthandlung [F.J. Brakl] Vincent van Gogh [French Period]
1909 Berlin (2) Germany Paul Cassirer

1911-12 Hamburg Germany Galerie Commeter
10 November 1911
1912 Breslau/Dresden Germany Galerie Ernst Arnold Ausstellung Vincent van Gogh 1853-1890  
1914 Berlin (1) Germany Paul Cassirer Vincent van Gogh 30 März 1853-29 July 1890. Zehnte Ausstellung 1 June 1914 5 July 1914 44
1915 Amsterdam Netherlands Gebouw van het Genootschap van kunstenaren Moderne Kunstkring Vincent van Gogh, werken van genooten. schilderijen, teekeningen en beeldhouwwerien 26 September 1915 30 November 1915 10
1921 Paris France
Exposition hollandaise, tableaux, aquarelles et dessins anciens et modernes

1923 Amsterdam Netherlands Stedelijk Museum Tentoonstelling van Nederlandsche beeldende kunsten  
1923-24 London United Kingdom Leicester Galleries Vincent van Gogh Exhibition 1 December 1923 15 January 1923
1947-48 London United Kingdom Tate Gallery Vincent van Gogh 1853-1890 10 December 1947 14 January 1948 48
1948 Birmingham United Kingdom City Art Gallery Vincent van Gogh 1853-1890 24 January 1948 14 February 1948
1948 London (1) United Kingdom Tate Gallery Samuel Courtauld Memorial Exhibition  
1948 Glasgow Scotland Art Gallery Vincent van Gogh 1853-1890 21 February 1948 14 March 1948
1955 Paris (3) France Musée de l'Orangerie Impressionnistes de la collection Courtauld de Londres  
1968-69 London United Kingdom Hayward Gallery Vincent van Gogh. Paintings and Drawings of the Vincent van Gogh Foundation Amsterdam 23 October 1968 12 January 1969 132
2002 Amsterdam (1) Netherlands Van Gogh Museum Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South 9 February 2002 2 June 2002

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