Published online by Cambridge University Press: 25 November 2020
Vincent van Gogh's Sunflowers are viewed by many as icons of Western European art. The artist painted five large versions of the motif and this book focuses on two in which the vase with sunflowers is portrayed against a yellow background. The first version, painted from life in August 1888, is now in the collection of the National Gallery in London, and the second, made in January 1889, is in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. New information recently came to light when the two paintings were examined in unprecedented depth, using a broad array of traditional to state-of-the art techniques, to look closely at and underneath the paint surface. Van Gogh's Sunflowers Illuminated presents the outcomes of this research undertaken by an international team of more than 30 scientists, conservators and art historians who have contributed as co-authors to this publication.
Technical studies of the London and Amsterdam Sunflowers
The idea of performing a comparative investigation of the related London and Amsterdam Sunflower paintings dates back to 1993, when a longstanding collaborative effort between the National Gallery and the Van Gogh Museum was launched that continues to the present day. Headed by Ashok Roy from the Scientific Department at the National Gallery, the initial study included chemical analysis of micro-samples of paint taken from each picture to facilitate a comparison of the composition and build-up of corresponding areas of colour and their state of preservation. In addition, a first assessment of the structural condition of the Amsterdam painting was made by the conservators Anthony Reeve (National Gallery) and Cornelia Peres (Van Gogh Museum), in view of the idea that the work might travel to London where the two pictures could be shown by side, a plan which did not go ahead at that time. In the years that followed there were few opportunities for short episodes of further examination, as the much-loved Sunflower paintings could not be removed from the galleries for long. One such occasion was the joint technical study undertaken by Kristin Hoermann Lister, Inge Fiedler and Cornelia Peres for the 2001–02 exhibition Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South. All three versions of Sunflowers against a yellow background were included in the exhibition.