Great Paintings Explained: Sunflowers by Vincent Van Gogh

Vincent’s floral vision for his studio in the south

Christopher P Jones
7 min readMar 3, 2022

Christopher P Jones is the author of How to Read Paintings, an introduction to some of the most fascinating artworks in art history.

Sunflowers (1888) by Vincent van Gogh. Oil on canvas. 92 × 73 cm. Neue Pinakothek, Munich, Germany. Image source Neue Pinakothek (shared under CC BY-SA 4.0)

In August 1888, Vincent van Gogh wrote to his friend, the Post-Impressionist artist Émile Bernard, with the idea that he was going to do up his house with sunflower paintings:

“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…”

(Letter to Émile Bernard. Arles, on or about Tuesday, 21 August 1888.)

In Arles in the south of France, Van Gogh had made his home in the “Yellow House” on the Place de la Cavalerie. It was here that he painted some of his most recognisable and indicative works of art. He painted the town’s night cafés with their prostitutes and lost bohemians. And it was in Arles that the stars rained out of the night skies like comets.

The Yellow House (“The Street”) by Vincent Van Gogh. 1888. Oil on canvas. 72 × 91.5 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands. Image source Wikimedia Commons

By the time he wrote to Émile Bernard in August of 1888, it seems Van Gogh’s project to paint sunflowers to adorn his studio walls was already underway. He expressed to his brother the following day:

“I’m painting with the gusto of a Marseillais eating bouillabaisse, which won’t surprise you when it’s a question of painting large Sunflowers.”

(Letter to Theo van Gogh. Arles, Tuesday, 21 or Wednesday, 22 August 1888.)

In the same letter to his brother, Vincent then went on to explain his current painting endeavours:

“I have 3 canvases on the go […] I’ll probably not stop there.”

The series of sunflower paintings Van Gogh made at this time shows an abundance of yellow flowers in a pottery vase. As his letters suggest, he made numerous renditions of the sunflowers in Arles. He made four larger sunflower paintings in August 1888 and three further replicas in January 1889, which he described as…