Monday, May 21, 2012

Van Gogh, Gauguin and Sunflowers

Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) and Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) came to know each other in Paris. They had a lot in common. Both men had come to art later in life after unsuccessful work careers. They also shared love of color, Impressionism (Archive: June,2010) and Japanese designs (Archive: Oct., 2009). Beyond those areas of commonality, they were very different in temperament and technique. These were expressed in their paintings and style.

Van Gogh was a visual painter. His paintings were quick, messy and based directly on what he saw. He often painted two paintings in a day. On the other hand, Gauguin preferred to sketch, deliberate and then paint from his memory of the scene.

Both painters were trying to find a unique style to fill the space after the Impressionists. Van Gogh had long held the dream of creating a collaborative art colony. To that end, he rented a house in Arles, France,
and invited Gauguin to join him.

In anticipation of Gauguin joining him, Van Gogh had painted sunflowers for his friend's bedroom. Sunflowers were long established as an emblem of friendship and divine love as they turned their "faces" to follow the sun.

The closeness of shared space proved to exaggerate their differences. Van Gogh tried to use Gauguin's methods of memory painting (left: "Memory of the Garden at Etten" by Van Gogh), but realized that is wasn't working for him. Gauguin was having the same experiences trying to paint ala Van Gogh.

Finally, on December 23rd, 1888, there was a major blow up. It was during that time that Van Gogh suffered a breakdown. He was hospitalized and repeatedly asked for Gauguin. Gauguin had already left Arles feeling that the sight of him might cause distress to Van Gogh. Van Gogh continued to deteriorate until his death in 1890.

Yet, the story of the 9 weeks these two artists painted, collaborated and discussed art constitute one of the most important partnerships in art. Yet Gauguin seemed disinclined to regard the time as well spent.

You see, Gauguin was an arrogant man. Typical of his character, he wrote about Van Gogh and the 9 weeks in Arles in a condescending manner. However, his true feelings for Van Gogh were revealed in his art. Less than two years before Gauguin's death, he created a homage to Van Gogh in a series of sunflower paintings.


  1. What a touching story! I like the significance of the sunflowers in their relationship. See you soon, JT

  2. Many times people don't appreciate each other until later. Lyle

  3. I love your perceptive approach to art history. This one really affected me. Gaugin was too arrogant to let Van Gogh know the value of their friendship, and they both suffered. Such a pity. I hope that way of interacting is on the way out. I love expressing my appreciation for people and want to say again how much I love your blog! Leslie

    1. Leslie: You are so nice to encourage my continuation of the blog. Many thanks, R.

  4. nice posting.. thanks for sharing.