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2 - The Sunflowers in Perspective

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 November 2020

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Summary

Introduction

The fifteen months Vincent van Gogh spent in Arles, from late February 1888 to early May of the following year, was the most intensely creative period of the artist's brief life. He produced some two hundred paintings during that time which, he realized even as he worked, constituted a watershed in his artistic development. They would prove hugely influential on later generations of artists and today count among his most admired works. At the same time he turned out a steady stream of drawings, watercolours and letters that provide an almost-daily chronicle of volatile emotion and passionate response to the natural environment of Provence, the like of which, in its effulgence, stark delineation of forms against the sky and chromatic intensity, he had never previously seen. The Arles period has also become the most intensely analysed moment of Van Gogh's comet-like career, the minutiae of his stay in the city pored over by scholars in numerous publications, as well as by curators, conservators, critics, song-writers, film-makers and novelists, not to mention an endlessly intrigued general public from every corner of the world.

The lives of artists often make for popular entertainment but little in the history of art can compare with the fascination exerted by the story of Van Gogh's stay in the south of France in 1888–89, the ambition that led him there, his friendship and falling out with Paul Gauguin, his parlous mental health, breakdown and commitment to an asylum … and, overwhelmingly, the seven Sunflowers canvases he painted there between August 1888 and January 1889. As Van Gogh's fame exploded worldwide in the decades after his death, those audacious works also became his best known. They seemed for many to be the key to his artistic achievement – something that Gauguin and indeed Van Gogh himself had intuited early on. As that achievement came to be regarded in the popular imagination as the archetype of the modern artist's struggle against ridicule and indifference, the Sunflowers moved beyond the bounds of fame to become the stuff of legend. When in the early months of 2014 just two of them, the London (1888) and Amsterdam (1889) versions, hung side by side at the National Gallery amid a series of expository panels on issues of colour degradation in modern pigments, visitors queued up daily for hours to see them.

Type
Chapter
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Van Gogh's Sunflowers Illuminated
Art Meets Science
, pp. 21 - 48
Publisher: Amsterdam University Press
Print publication year: 2019

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