Van Gogh Painted Many ‘Sunflowers.’ But How Different Are They?

Should they be considered copies, independent artworks or something in between? An extensive international research project has just released its findings.

“Vincent van Gogh Painting Sunflowers” by Paul Gauguin. Credit Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

By Nina Siegal

AMSTERDAM — In the summer of 1888, Vincent van Gogh invited his friend and fellow painter Paul Gauguin to visit him in Arles, France, and to stay with him at the house where he hoped to establish an artists’ retreat. When Gauguin arrived in the fall, he found his room decorated with Van Gogh’s artworks, including a painting of sunflowers arranged in a ceramic vase against a yellow background.

The two-month visit ended disastrously. The two artists had a blowout fight, and van Gogh sliced off his ear, suffered a mental breakdown and ended up in the hospital. Gauguin fled back to Paris.

A couple of weeks later, however, he wrote to van Gogh requesting that painting, “Sunflowers,” praising it as “a perfect page of an essential ‘Vincent’ style.”

Understandably, van Gogh was reluctant to hand over what he felt might be his most accomplished work, and so he decided to paint another version of the yellow “Sunflowers” to exchange with a work by Gauguin. He completed that one in January 1889, but never sent it.

These two paintings, both called “Sunflowers,” are generally accepted as the finest of several depictions of the thick-stemmed, nodding blooms that van Gogh made in 1888 and 1889 during his time in Arles. The first is now in the collection of the National Gallery in London, and the second is in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

The 1889 version of “Sunflowers,” which is in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
Credit Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Van Gogh referred to this work as a “repetition” of the London painting. But art historians and curators have long been curious to know how different this “repetition” is from the first. Should it be considered a copy, an independent artwork or something in between?

An extensive research project conducted over the past three years by conservation experts at both the National Gallery and the Van Gogh Museum has concluded that the second painting was “not intended as an exact copy of the original example,” said Ella Hendriks, a professor of conservation and restoration at the University of Amsterdam, who was the lead researcher on the project.

“Though the basic palette is the same, there were different colors that were used, differences in paint texturing, and his brushwork is different,” she said.

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