The still life is a staple for all styles of painting, a simple format practiced by those just beginning as well as the artistic masters. However, few have captured a still life of flowers as well as Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh made flower still-lifes a specialty, particularly toward the end of his life when the artist painted some of his most highly acclaimed pieces.
These still lifes remain some of the most astounding artistic pieces today, representative of a key turning point in art history and the style that had made Van Gogh famous. Let’s take a look at some of the most famous still-life flower paintings Van Gogh produced and how the world has responded to them.
Most of Van Gogh’s still life painting began in 1886 and continued until his death. This gave the master several years to produce an exquisite series of works, but some of the most famous remain his Sunflowers paintings.
The Sunflower series is iconic and one of the most identifiable Van Gogh works around the world, know for its brilliant use of color and simplicity of imagery, underpinned by Van Gogh’s famed style. In 1888, Van Gogh conceived the idea of creating sunflower still lifes, which he mentioned in a letter to Emile Bernard. Vincent wanted to decorate his study with “half a dozen paintings of Sunflowers.” He specifically mentions some of the most widely recognized features of the series, such as “harsh or broken yellows” that stood out “against various blue backgrounds.” He was inspired by the effects of stained-glass windows in Gothic churches when first conceiving the idea.
As his work with the Sunflowers continued, the series eventually grew to twelve planned works designed to decorate the studio that he and Gauguin shared, the Yellow House. Van Gogh also wrote that it was particularly challenging to paint the still lifes of sunflowers, because the sunflowers swiftly wilted and he had to work quickly. As a result, he started in the morning as soon as the sunrise provided enough light and worked for as long as possible: The work proved so challenging that he only finished four paintings in the first year.
Van Gogh evinced particularly pride in his Sunflowers, which can be seen in certain of his letters – the notoriously temperamental artist also lamented the work in other correspondence, worried that he was too well known for sunflower work and not enough for other types of work. But at other times he gladly identified himself as the “Sunflower” painter and was on the whole pleased with the results.
A look at the Sunflowers series will quickly show that Vincent’s dream of broken yellows against a variety of blue backgrounds did not always pan out. In fact, the artist experimented with a variety of shades and backgrounds, much to the benefit of the series, which also portrays sunflowers in a variety of darker shades against more muted backgrounds designed to draw out the life and natural qualities of the flowers. Van Gogh was painstakingly accurate in his rendition of flowers disheveled, crooked, flourishing, wilting and everything in between – the results remain striking to this day.
Still Life with Meadow Flowers and Roses
Sunflowers were not the only flower still-lifes that Van Gogh attempted, and one work in particular received a large amount of attention in 2012 because, until then, no one was sure that Van Gogh had painted it at all!
This painting had hung in Otterlo at the Kroeller-Mueller Museum since the mid-1970s, but no one recognized the painter and so it has been labeled anonymous while experts attempted to narrow down the pool of potential artists. Van Gogh was not considered a leading runner in this pool because this painting had several unusual characteristics not typically associated with his work. It was unusually large for one of Van Gogh’s painting, it used far more types of flowers than he usually did, and the signature was not a usual placement, leading many to assume it was an imitator and not the master himself.
The final analysis finally arrived in the 2010s thanks to the latest technology, which used x-ray imaging to closely examine not only the surface brushstrokes but the underpainting as well. This underpainting had first been spotted in the 1990s but advanced x-ray examinations allowed experts to finally verify that it was indeed a Van Gogh. Curiously, the artist had painted the Meadow Flowers scene over another work, one of two wrestlers (Van Gogh was known to paint wrestlers as a study of the human torso). Pigment analysis also matched the pigments used in other Van Gogh paintings.
It is not know why Vincent painted over his original work approximately six months later, although he might have seen it as more of an exercise in painting the human form than a painting designed for widespread display. We do know that Van Gogh specifically mentioned a painting with two nude wrestlers in 1886, tying this still life and its hidden work directly to Van Gogh’s history.
Still Life, Vase with Daises and Poppies
There is, of course, another reason that Van Gogh’s paintings are famous, and that is because they are very, very rarely sold and command tremendous prices at auction. This was seen in 2014, when a Van Gogh, Still Life, Vase with Daises and Poppies, was sold at a Sotheby’s auction and was widely recognized as the most important Van Gogh auction in more than two decades.
The painting, which featured brilliantly colored poppies and some diminutive daisies, in addition to other meadow flowers, was painted in 1890 soon after Van Gogh was released from an asylum. He spent much time after in the fields of Auvers-sur-Oise, and created the work at the house of one of his closest friends, Dr. Gachet. The work was finished only months before Van Gogh’s death, but the artist had the satisfaction of seeing the work sell during his lifetime – one of the few such paintings that did.
The estimated auction price for Vase with Daises and Poppies was expected to be around 30 million euros, but when the painting sold it was for nearly 39 million euros, around $62 million. The Van Gogh was purchased by a private bidder from Asia. This was one of the highest auction prices seen for a Van Gogh, but by no means the highest – the record still stands at 51.6 million euros ($82.5 million), for a Portrait of Dr. Gauchet.
Still lifes with flowers remain some of the most famous Van Gogh works across the world, inspiring other artists and showcasing the best work of the artist who had such a keen understanding of how to express natural objects in his paintings.