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The Sunflowers are Mine:
The Story of Van Gogh's Masterpiece
by Martin Bailey
On August 18, 1888, the mistral blew so hard in Provence that Vincent Van Gogh, recently ensconced in his “Yellow House” in Arles, was forced to abandon plans to paint outdoors. He thought he would paint portraits, instead, but the models failed to turn up. So for the rest of that week - revved up with booze and coffee 'to key myself up a bit to reach the high yellow note I reached this summer' - he painted a series of sunflowers.
First came a picture of three vibrant blooms against a rich turquoise ground. Then one of six, more faded, backed by royal blue. Then he painted 14, going to seed, with a sky-blue backdrop. Last came 15 sunflowers, a roaring yellow on yellow. This canvas now hangs in London's National Gallery. It is arguably the best-loved painting in the world, and is one of the most visited: Martin Bailey observes that the floor in front of it is more scuffed than anywhere else in the gallery.
That is typically acute. Bailey is an investigative journalist turned respected Van Gogh specialist. He previously broke an important story on Van Gogh fakes, and traced a lost Van Gogh portrait. In this book, he reveals first how the four original sunflowers were painted, and then what became of them - and of the three copies the artist completed the following winter.
There is little here that will be new to art historians, but Bailey has two scoops of a sort. The royal-blue Six Sunflowers was destroyed in a bombing raid in August 1945, but he has tracked down a rare image that has never been published outside Japan. His bigger story, however, concerns that mutilated ear, which Van Gogh slashed on December 23, 1888, just four months after the optimistic sunflower project was begun.
The usual explanation for the ear is that Van Gogh was mentally ill, and had argued with Paul Gauguin, who was sharing the Yellow House at the time. More baroque theories have included the idea that eating lead paint drove Van Gogh mad, that it was Gauguin who did the slashing, or (most outlandishly) that the argument was sexually charged and the two artists were secretly lovers.
Bailey first published his alternative theory in 2009, in The Art Newspaper, but it now appears here in full. Zeroing in on an envelope that is visible in Van Gogh's Still Life with Onions, which was painted in mid-January 1889, he argues - via a series of ingenious inferences - that a distinctive (and just discernible) postmark proves that this was a letter announcing his brother Theo's engagement. It arrived 'literally a few hours before Vincent mutilated his ear' and would apparently have made him 'fearful of losing his brother's support'.
The theory isn't so bad. It might well be true. What it lacks is psychological insight. Bailey says little in the book about Van Gogh's relationships with either Theo or Gauguin - who left Arles for good soon after the ear incident - and there is only a passing reference to the surely suggestive fact that Van Gogh deposited his bleeding half-ear at a local brothel. Van Gogh's illness is dismissed without further explanation as 'mental problems' and 'recurrent crises'.
The real focus of the book is on the life of the sunflowers as paintings - and Bailey supplies fascinating documentary detail. It seems that the mistral determined only the timing of the project. Van Gogh had long wanted to have a signature flower (hence the title of this book, which is a quotation) and the four sunflower paintings were conceived as a decorative scheme, to welcome Gauguin to the Yellow House. The 14 and 15 paintings were designed to hang, like a triptych, on either side of a tender picture of a woman rocking a cradle, like two glowing candelabras, or sunny shutters.
That hints at one possible meaning for the pictures, and Bailey sketches a few others. In Dutch painting, sunflowers were associated with love of God. In Provence, they represented the heat of the south. Van Gogh's friends read his sunflowers as signifying 'the supreme glow of love', and the artist himself described them as an exercise in intensity: 'To be sufficiently heated up to melt those gold and those flower tones,' he wrote, 'takes an individual's whole and entire energy and attention.'
Van Gogh later told a critic, cryptically, that the sunflowers expressed 'an idea symbolising 'gratitude' '. But for what? For light? For nature? For love? (A year earlier, in Paris, the artist had courted an Italian cafe owner with flower paintings.) For Gauguin? For the gift of art itself? Bailey does not tell us.
There was also the question of money. Early on in Van Gogh's career, Theo suggested that flowers might be relatively marketable. This proved to be very much the case. The second half of Bailey's book describes what happened to the seven sunflower paintings. Less successfully, it tries to explain why they became so famous.
Bailey thoroughly demolishes the popular myth that the artist was not regarded in his lifetime. Even if it didn't sell, his work - and the sunflower paintings in particular - was admired by avant-garde contemporaries. The critic Octave Mirbeau rhapsodised: 'Oh, how he has understood the exquisite soul of flowers.' Camille Pissarro thought 'Vincent's flowers look like people' (an interpretation ignored by Bailey). The writer and collector Antoine de la Rochefoucauld bought one, and tried to copy it. Only a little later, Henri Matisse tried to buy a Van Gogh - but was thwarted when his brother spent the money on a penny-farthing instead.
After Van Gogh's death, his work was quickly seen as epitomising post-impressionism. And, with popularity, came value. The afterlife of his own (unsigned) Fifteen Sunflowers illustrates the story. It was bought in 1894 for the equivalent of £12. In 1920, a relative of Felix Mendelssohn acquired it for £1,400 (roughly the same price that was paid four years later by the National Gallery for the original). In 1935, it was sold in London for £10,200. And then, in 1987, the Japanese Yasuda Corporation bid more than £25m for it at auction. That figure alone guaranteed the renown of Van Gogh's sunflowers.
Bailey estimates that if the painting came on the market today 'it would almost certainly fly way beyond £100m'. It is impossible to guess what the National Gallery might get for the original. And all because the mistral blew - and, of course, for the many other reasons laid out in this thorough, absorbing, but sometimes limited book.
The vivid colours of the Sunflower paintings have changed somewhat over time. Partly this is due to dirt and discoloured varnish. But it is also has to do with the cheap pigments that Van Gogh used, which have darkened in places. A 1901 review of the London Sunflowers, for instance, referred to its ‘orange coloured’ blooms; the tone today, says Bailey, is ‘more of an ochre’.
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