Thursday, 29 March 2012

Favourite Paintings - Van Gogh

Given the beautiful sunny weather at the moment, this is perhaps an easy choice for favourite painting - Vincent van Gogh's Sunflowers.

Vincent van Gogh Vase with 12 Sunflowers (version 3) (Oil on canvas 1888)

They're happy and vibrant and full of life-affirming optimism, and I think that's why so many people identify with and love these paintings.

Van Gogh had moved down to Arles in the sunny south of France in 1888, intending to set up a studio in the 'Yellow House' with his friend Paul Gauguin.  In preparation for his arrival, Vincent excitedly painted a series of 11 pictures of sunflowers to decorate the house.  Yellow, the colour of the sun, symbolised happiness, with the sunflower being a Dutch symbol of devotion and loyalty which he felt for his friend.  Also, by including flowers from buds and full blooms through to drooping seed heads in the paintings, it is a reminder of the cycle of life.
The paint is applied thickly, with love for the medium, and in a huge variety of strokes.  As well as the colour being expressive, the marks are too - fluid, lively, quick, with lots of texture.

Vincent van Gogh Sunflowers (detail) (Oil on canvas, 1888)
 Vincent van Gogh Sunflowers (detail) (Oil on canvas, 1888)

Initially, the sunflower paintings followed established painting rules, having a blue background (blue being the complementary of yellow, so that each colour is intensified by being beside each other).  However later paintings in the series have yellow backgrounds, so you have yellow on yellow with yellow, with just a central pop of blue.  It's turning the happiness and the message of the paintings right up to 11.
Vincent spent spent the summer of 1888 in a frenzy of work and waiting. Gauguin finally rolled into town in October, bringing a long roll of rough jute as a present, which both painters used as a substrate to paint on.  (You can trace their paintings they they did together at this time by piecing together the paintings that were cut from this roll of jute.)  
Having waited for months for his arrival, van Gogh must have been quite overwhelmingly fit to burst when his friend turned up.  Gauguin, however,  seems to have been quite arrogant and domineering. Unfortunately, it all ended in tears, with the actuality of the situation being nothing like the artistic idyll which Vincent had built up in his head.   The two artists didn't agree on anything, from domestic arrangements to painting, and van Gogh couldn't cope with Gauguin's overwhelming critical attitude.  
In only 2 months Gauguin was gone, and Vincent was plunged into severe depression.  
Eighteen months later, van Gogh was dead.

Vincent van Gogh, Still Life with Two Sunflowers 1887

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